21 Jump Street treads on thin ice in an early scene where it’s explained that the police department has revived a specialty division that started in the 1980s, that it’s part of a trend of resurrecting and modernizing old programs due to a lack of original ideas, and that they’re hoping the public won’t notice. Nothing threatens to ruin a movie faster than winking at the audience in a showy display of self-referential humor. Fortunately, the filmmakers had the foresight to get this out of the way as quickly as possible. The rest of the film is a surprisingly entertaining romp, one that has an emotional core despite being pervasively crude and at times highly violent. The filmmakers even work in two unexpected but very welcome cameo appearances. No, I won’t say who makes them.
Full disclosure: I have not watched a single episode of the original TV series. According to Wikipedia, it was a police drama in which young-looking undercover police officers infiltrated high schools and colleges to investigate crimes. Thankfully, that tidbit of information tells me everything I need to know. Although utilizing the exact same premise, this film adaptation has been transformed from a procedural drama into a raunchy comedy. You’d think such a drastic shift in tone would be fatal for this material, but in fact, it works fairly well. This is helped in large part by the casting of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who are not only individually funny but also rank as the best odd-couple pairing since Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys.
It tells the story of Morton Schmidt (Hill) and Greg Jenko (Tatum), who in high school were enemies and at polar opposite ends of the social and academic spectrums. One was bookish and nerdy while the other was an idiot jock. See if you can guess which one is which. They reunite in police academy and continue to exhibit the same traits that defined them as teens. Despite this, they become friends and soon graduate as partners. Sadly, their dreams of being badass cops on a dangerous beat are shattered when they’re assigned to park patrol. They think they finally have their chance at glory when they spot a group of drug dealers and attempt to take them down. Miraculously, they do arrest one of them. But because Jenko forgot to read him his Miranda rights, the department was forced to release him.
This lands both Jenko and Schmidt in hot water. As punishment, they’re reassigned to the revived 21 Jump Street division, located within an abandoned church and presided over by the perpetually angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). He explains the division’s purpose in much the same way I did a few paragraphs ago, albeit with many more obscene references to Oedipus. Schmidt and Jenko are to infiltrate a high school where a new synthetic drug is rapidly becoming popular. Their mission: Prevent it from spreading to other schools and discover the identities of both the dealer and the supplier. Hoping to ensure that their covers aren’t blown, they pose as brothers and move in with Schmidt’s parents. Let’s just say they have turned their house into an eclectic and somewhat frightening shrine to their son.
As the saying goes, wacky hijinx ensue. Schmidt and Jenko assume the wrong student identities, meaning the former will have to join the Drama Club and Track and Field whereas the latter has to take chemistry classes. They track down the dealer – an eco-friendly, racially tolerant, and highly popular teen named Eric (Dave Franco). They try the drug and experience a high unlike any other. In a complete reversal of their actual high school days, Schmidt becomes popular and even develops romantic feelings for one of his Drama Club classmates, a young woman named Molly (Brie Larson); at the same time, Jenko becomes an outcast and soon befriends all the science nerds, who are surprisingly adept at turning cell phones into surveillance devices. There’s even time for a frenetic car chase, a few more run-ins with the drug dealers Schmidt and Jenko tried to bust earlier in the movie, and several well-placed explosions.
What I appreciated about this film was that a real buddy story lurked underneath the foul language and disgusting sexual references. We really do get the sense that Schmidt and Jenko are friends, especially during the final shootout sequence at the senior prom. I also appreciated what I interpreted to be a commentary on the high school experience. If you had the chance to do certain things over again – say, finally working up the nerve to ask the girl you like to the prom – would you take it? Would you treat other people differently, knowing what you know now? The fact that 21 Jump Street even alluded to these questions shows that the filmmakers were thinking beyond the scope of teenagers with short attention spans. They wanted to make a movie that was both funny and insightful.