A title and a loose premise are essentially all that connect the movie version of 21 Jump Street to its inspiration, the late-80s Fox TV series best remembered for introducing the world to Johnny Depp. In fact, it seems pretty unnecessary to establish any connection between a Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill action-comedy vehicle and a dated teen procedural that a large swath of the film’s target audience probably hasn’t seen. The good news is that 21 Jump Street is often a spot-on parody of itself – or perhaps the film it might have been without a devilishly funny script from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World scribe Michael Bacall – as well as any buddy-cop franchise of recent vintage and dubious credibility. Think Bad Boys or Rush Hour filtered through the sensibility of a smartass movie buff, drawing attention to every lapse in logic and every cliché embedded in the formula.
The film follows two young police officers – a dimwitted meathead (Tatum) and a doughy wallflower (Hill) – whose immaturity gets them reassigned to an undercover unit specializing in juvenile crimes. (Talk about failing upwards.) Posing as high school students, the duo infiltrates a drug ring peddling a synthetic orange wafer that propels its user through several stages of hallucination, exhaustion, and aggression. Tatum mixes up their fake identities on their first day undercover, a nifty little conceit that leads to Hill unexpectedly ingratiating himself with the popular clique to get closer to the main drug supplier, while Tatum sidles up to a geek squad that helps him with wiretaps and AP Chemistry homework. Hill’s jailbait-y love interest (Brie Larson) also drives a wedge between the partners, who are constantly chewed out by their unrepentantly angry captain (Ice Cube) for working too slowly even as they deliver an action beat every 20 minutes or so.
Despite its penchant for mocking audience expectations, 21 Jump Street adheres to the same buddy-cop principles that it so often ridicules. That kind of thing has been done before – Hot Fuzz comes to mind as a film that bests Jump Street in both scope and cleverness, as well as the appropriate escalation of tension. The movie’s stakes are never established in a satisfying way, and the main villain, once revealed, is kind of underwhelming. But what the movie lacks in originality it makes up with winning comedic performances and sheer prankish charm. What’s not to love about a film that features Channing Tatum delivering a deadpan poetic ode to potassium nitrate? 21 Jump Street feels familiar in a good way, a mildly subversive experience that engenders goodwill by inviting viewers to take it even less seriously than it takes itself.
“21 Jump Street” starts playing in theaters nationwide on Friday