21 Jump Street, an action/comedy reboot of the 80’s TV cop drama that starred a young teen-beat Johnny Depp, is a funny but puerile and inconsequential bromance and wish-fulfillment fantasy starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. They play two overgrown kids with guns and badges who manage to suppress their underlying homoeroticism long enough to infiltrate a high school and stop a drug ring. The only thing this weakly transmuted adaptation has in common with its source material is the title and the squalid abandoned church headquarters that provides the eponymous address. The rest is a 21st century makeover that sheds the original series’ risible earnestness to make room for a full layer of parodic flippancy and dick jokes.
To call 21 Jump Street loosely plotted is being kind. Way back in 2005, a Slim Shady clone named Schmidt (Hill) gets shot down by his dream prom date while the wispy haired and doltish jock Jenko (Tatum) looks on and laughs. “You’re a dork and she’s hot,” he teases at the outcome. Years later, the two are paired up in police academy and become partners and friends. Expectations of car chases and fiery explosions are quickly replaced by park duty and bike patrol. Luckily, the two are fresh-faced enough to join Captain Dickson (Ice Cube in a hilarious performance of muted aggression) and his covert unit of undercover high school students.
A slimmed-down and reigned-in Jonah Hill plays his usual insecure and luckless man-child, still stammering awkwardly through conversations with coeds. In Moneyball, Hill took a huge step forward as an actor, complimenting Brad Pitt’s movie star machismo with a nerdish reticence that made the geek/jock collision of modern sport statistics seem like a fetching antipodal mélange. Here, that maturity has been washed away and replaced by the Woody Allen-ish, nervous romantic-underdog bit that’s grown tired since Superbad. The far more accomplished performance belongs to Hill’s sidekick Channing Tatum, for whom this project is actually a progressive one. With his West Point crew cut and linebacker’s build, Tatum has an All-American virility and innate physicality that, as Jenko, he gets a chance to subvert with tasteless humor and blockheadedness and belie with notes of sympathetic ambivalence.
High school’s changed a lot since Jenko ran things. Only seven years removed from his glory years, he’s shocked to learn that there’s no room for old-fashioned schoolyard thugs when the popular kids are into tolerance and environmentalism. So he falls in with a trio of AP Chemistry wiz-kids, instead. At the same time, Schmidt’s desperate keggers and drugged-out turn as Peter Pan—complete with tights and feather—wins him favor with the socialites, a group of pretty people who might be supplying the student body with a lethal new designer drug. With the roles reversed, Schmidt has not only infiltrated the crime syndicate he was brought in to bring down, but also the clique of preppies that represent the teen-dream lifestyle he missed out on the first time around.Like Peggy Sue Got Married, 21 Jump Street is a post-school reverie about getting a second chance at adolescence. But it somehow seamlessly hybrids that with something like Hot Fuzz—an action movie about a generation of kids weaned on action movies, grown up and handed guns with no place to discharge them. The final act really detonates into a blood-soaked shoot ‘em up—poking fun at viewer expectations. At some point in route, all the John Hughes and Lethal Weapon self-awareness starts to feel like felicitous cover-up for a poorly written story that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller don’t seem to care much about. Forget the hail of bullets and inside jokes, 21 Jump Street remains a raunchy and ribald teen-angst comedy that gets you guffawing, if hardly ever caring.