The TV show that made Johnny Depp a star is little more than a jumping-off point for the big-screen “21 Jump Street,” a rowdy, raunchy update that aims for laughs over action and delivers them intermittently.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are surprisingly amusing together in a mismatched pairing of newbie cops sent undercover as high school kids to root out a drug ring. A couple of guest appearances from the TV show almost make the movie worth seeing on their own (the identity of the cameo perps has been widely reported, but we won’t name names here; even if you’ve read about them, the way they pop up will be a nice surprise).
The R-rated gross-out humor, language and violence don’t add up to the “21 Jump Street” you might fondly remember. But then, other than for Depp’s presence, how many people fondly remember the show, anyway?
This is not a property requiring respect and devotion to the source material to satisfy longtime fans, so the filmmakers wisely make a “21 Jump Street” all their own. They dump the idea on its head, poke not-so-polite fun at the original and offer a spot-on summation of Hollywood’s vapid approach to remakes, couching the commentary in cop jabber about reviving LA’s moribund program that places youthful-looking police moles in high schools.
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Two of the recruits are Hill’s Morton Schmidt and Tatum’s Greg Jenko. A brisk, clever prologue spells out their back-story, Schmidt as a high school uber-geek, Jenko as a dopey stud, with the two becoming unlikely best buddies years later at the police academy.
Sent back to school as undercover brothers, the two flash back on old teen anxieties and encounter plenty of new ones as they struggle to fit in while tracing the source of a dangerous new hallucinogen that erodes users’ inhibitions in insanely comical fashion.
Hill shares story credit with screenwriter Michael Bacall, but what little actual story is here serves only as the setup for an anything-goes approach by the cast and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (making their live-action debut after collaborating on the animated hit “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”).
Everything about the movie – the car chases, the shootouts, the teen kegger, the goofy idiocy of the characters – is pushed to the extreme. Some of the absurd violence is funny, some is pointlessly mean and nasty enough to jar viewers out of the action now and then.
Ice Cube pops in occasionally with some foul-mouthed fun as Schmidt and Jenko’s perpetually seething police captain, while Brie Larson is adorably fetching as the high-school hottie Schmidt might actually have a shot with this time around.
Hill and Tatum’s odd-couple act is the best thing about “21 Jump Street,” both playing the straight man yet managing to make their partnership much funnier than the hit-and-miss jokes and action really are.
The movie’s nimble pacing also helps, sneaking in some slick, wily tidbits and powering through the many gags that would fall flat if you had another second or two to think about them.
It doesn’t work all of the time, or even most of the time, but it does work enough of the time to make “21 Jump Street” more enjoyable than most of Hollywood’s unimaginative remakes and updates.
"21 Jump Street,"
2 1/2 stars
Who's in it: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum
What's it about: A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes