21 Jump Street is an early contender for surprise hit of the year. Movies based on old television shows haven’t had a winning percentage and 21 Jump Street had the potential to be another Starsky & Hutch or, worse yet, Car 54, Where Are You? Instead, it’s a clever and uproarious spoof of action films and high school comedies.
Jonah Hill steps up from his usual role of comic relief sidekick to act as lead, producer, and co-writer with Michael Bacall, who penned Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. Hill plays Morton Schmidt, an awkward teen with braces, who could never get the girl in high school. He was also constantly bullied by Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum), the star football player, who was unable to attend prom because of his poor grades. They eventually reunite at the police academy where Schmidt’s brains and Jenko’s brawn make them a formidable combination.
Their dreams of being badass cops are quickly dashed when they are assigned to bike duty at the local park. An arrest of some seedy bikers turns into an embarrassment when Jenko fails to read the perp his Miranda rights. As punishment, they are transferred to 21 Jump Street where they are to go undercover at the high school as brothers to ferret out the supplier of a new drug known as H.F.S. (Holy Fucking Shit). Schmidt’s smart and sensitive ways gets him into the cool crowd, who turn out to be the dealers, while Jenko’s meathead manners get him stuck with the science geeks. Their mission is put in jeopardy as Schmidt becomes preoccupied with living the glory days he never had as a teenager.
Hill intended 21 Jump Street to be Bad Boys crossed with John Hughes and he succeeds on both accounts. The screenplay skewers the conventions of both genres. During a car chase, Schmidt and Jenko are repeatedly shocked that numerous objects they shoot at haven’t exploded. They easily identify various high school cliques such as the nerds, the jocks, and the Goths, but others (hipsters, anime fans) completely puzzle them. The food chain of the 80’s is turned upside-down as geeks have since inherited the Earth. The environmentally friendly, socially conscious kids are cool while the brutish alpha male jock is passé. The film is also rife with witty metatextual humor, such as one character remarking that the Jump Street program was brought back due to a lack of original ideas. A drama teacher (played by the very funny Chris Parnell) notes the school play has reached the end of the second act just as the movie itself as reached the end of the second act. Even the generic name of the setting, Metro City, leads into other background jokes, like a billboard simply saying, “Billboard.”
The comedy is accentuated by co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously helmed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and created the MTV series, Clone High with Bill Lawrence (Scrubs). Much like Pixar’s Brad Bird did on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Lord and Miller have made a strong live-action debut. Due to their animation roots, they are able to inject 21 Jump Street with a vibrant energy and loony sight gags, evidenced by the hallucinations Schmidt and Jenko experience while tripping out on H.F.S.
While the film has plenty profanity and gross-out situations, it actually has heart thanks to the growing friendship between Schmidt and Jenko. Hill and Tatum have excellent chemistry together, making their characters both entertaining and sympathetic. Tatum may not have strong dramatic skills, but he has a wealth of comedic talent. He manages to steal the funny away from Hill and gets some of the movie’s best lines (“Fuck you, science.”) There’s also a sweet romance between Hill and Brie Larson, although, any potential statutory charges are never brought up. It is mentioned that Hill and Tatum look too old to be attending high school, but so do most of the other actors.
Speaking of which, the supporting performances are fantastic across the board. Dave Franco (James’s younger brother) is appropriately douchey as the leader of the cool clique as is Rob Riggle as the track coach. Ellie Kemper gets some funny scenes as a teacher trying hard to hide her attraction to Jenko. Nick Offerman essentially reprises his role of Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation as a police captain. His dry line readings contrast from the boisterous performance of Ice Cube as Jump Street’s stereotypically angry captain (“Sometimes I get angry…so suck a dick.”) Rye Rye and Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson & Melanie Griffith) appear as a rival undercover squad getting far better results. And, yes, there are cameos from original cast members like Holly Robinson Peete and Johnny Depp, but, sadly, not Richard Grieco.