21 Jump Street

What was the appeal of the cop show 21 Jump Street to young audiences? It seemed preachy, and its subtext was that the cool, mysterious new kid in your high-school class could be an undercover cop. (The obvious answer is not to trust any new kids.) I remember the show being somewhat ironically enjoyed, much like its near-contemporary Beverly Hills 90210. Like The Mod Squad, it tried to tackle tough issues relevant to Today’s Youth, but a network television series could only tackle so hard back in the ’80s. The new 21 Jump Street movie lampoons the typical 21 Jump Street episode, with added fish-out-of-water jokes involving how much high-school culture changes in only seven years. It’s no longer considered cool to be aggressive and dismissive of passion; now everyone is sensitive and socially committed.

The movie sends inept twentysomething cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) back to high school to bust up a drug ring. The narcotic all the kids are taking is some new synthetic mind-blaster that works in hilariously specific stages. This 21 Jump Street is neither pro- nor anti-drug, but mines a lot of humor from its effects, especially when Schmidt and Jenko are obliged to try the drug to prove to the school’s dealer that they’re not narcs. If there was ever an episode where Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise had to shove their fingers down each other’s throats so they’d vomit up a drug, then failed and had to contend with a track coach whose head kept changing into animals and ice cream cones, I must’ve missed it.

The young directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) hedge their bets entertainingly by filling the movie’s margins with ironclad comedy professionals; Rob Riggle, for instance, turns up as the aforementioned track coach, Ellie Kemper and Chris Parnell are also on the faculty, the formidable Nick Offerman appears too briefly as the cops’ deputy chief, and none other than Ice Cube is the captain of the Jump Street program. (The movie goes excessively meta for a minute or so when NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” invades the soundtrack, ending on a shot of Ice Cube, looking as angry as he sounded on that song.) For nostalgic fans of the show, no fewer than three of its actors walk on here; sorry, but that sort of thing is what the too-serious Miami Vice film needed.

Hill and Tatum make a natural Mutt and Jeff team, and when I laughed, which was fairly often, Hill was responsible — though I became an instant fan of Tatum’s chemistry-class ode to the wonders of potassium nitrate, and Brie Larson as Hill’s romantic interest has some terrific dry line readings. The movie is perfectly pleasant, a smidgen too aware of itself (though the “why didn’t that explode?” running gag during a car chase pays off nicely) but consistently sharp; the party scene midway through is wilder and funnier than the entirety of the recent party movie Project X (which, like this film, was written by Michael Bacall — small world). It’s been getting a tad overpraised, perhaps because everyone’s surprised it isn’t completely foul; the randomness and genre-tweaking of The Other Guys hit my particular humor spot more solidly. It’s not a classic, but it’ll look just fine on cable in a couple of years, and at least it doesn’t end with a painfully earnest PSA, as some episodes of the show did. Then again, that might’ve put it over the top to genuine greatness — leave something for the DVD extras, I guess.

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