by Tony Dayoub
21 Jump Street, a reboot/remake of the popular late '80s cop series that launched Johnny Depp to stardom, has been in development for years. It's got not one but two directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who's biggest claim to fame is the mediocre 2009 animated movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Which is to say, this buddy film has been through a lot of hands. Not ulike the stoner action-comedy, Pineapple Express, which fizzled in the over-elaboration of its contradictions, 21 Jump Street has its own schizoid quality: is it a grisly, violent cop thriller or a drug-fueled high school comedy? The big difference is that despite these disparate elements stacked against the new movie (compounded by the flatness owed to its small-screen origins), somehow, 21 Jump Street works.
The movie's title is the fictional address of a church which doubles as a bas of operations for a small team of baby-faced cops who infiltrate high schools primarily to bust up drug rings. Rookies Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), each a professional washout in their own unique way, are posted to this fledgling unit where their first assignment is to stop a new street drug, HFS (the first thing its users often utter when they fall under its thrall is "Holy Fucking Shit!"), from spreading further than the high school where it originated. The Jump Street unit is run by a literal "angry black man," Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who acknowledges the stereotype in a funny sequence where the two-dimensionality of all of the main characters' is highlighted. In fact, the movie takes pains to own up to its lack of originality and formulaic plot elements.
Self-referential comedies have become so prevalent, they hardly elicit laughs anymore. So it's another universal element, a more basic comedy trope, that's really the key to 21 Jump Street's charm. Long before they became study buddies in the police academy, the studly but dumb Jenko used to pick on Schmidt in high school, calling him "Not-So-Slim Shady" (one of many funny but relatively benign insults) for his Eminem-inspired look. The usually wooden Tatum and generally annoying Hill are two actors I'm not usually kind to, but 21 Jump Street finds them at their most charming. It's because the movie has something Pineapple Express sorely lacked: heart. One can't help but sympathize with the horror Schmidt feels at the thought of returning to high school, or his elation when he realizes that the very things he was made fun for are now in vogue. And it's even easier to relate to Jenko's sad, belated understanding of his partner's adolescent feelings when it is he who is now regarded as the dorky outcast (Jenko blames this role reversal on the recent popularity of another TV show: Glee).
Vacillating between a raucous buddy comedy and a cops-and-drug-dealers action thriller, 21 Jump Street occasionally threatens to run off the rails. This occurs when the film dips into the hip, in-joke pool too often, Like in its cameo-filled climax or when it suddenly has an attack of the "plausibles" during a chase scene, in which two vehicles carrying flammable material get shot up and fail to explode, before a third... well, I'll leave that for you to see. But what keeps 21 Jump Street both hilarious and grounded is its simple, relatable fish-out-of-water theme. Straightforward and honest, it's this universal theme that saves 21 Jump Street from degenerating into a series of setpieces strung together by committee.
21 Jump Street opens nationwide on March 16th, 2012.