The thing about filmmaking is that in the right hands, a truly dumb concept can turn into a great movie, just as a good story can get turned into a bomb in the wrong hands. When I heard about “21 Jump Street,” I thought, “Do we really need another movie about adults going back to high school?” To make matters worse, this one is based on an old TV show, usually a sign that a movie will suck. To my surprise, the movie is a complete hoot! They almost take the lack of originality and make it an advantage. Instead of worrying too much about plot, the film focuses on good acting, physical comedy, and action, and they come up with a winner!
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play Schmidt and Jenko, a couple of rookie cops. The two were high school classmates, where Jenko (Tatum) was a popular jock and Schmidt (Hill) was a nerd. They wind up becoming friends in the police academy, and after screwing up as bicycle cops, they are sent to 21 Jump Street, an undercover project that sends young-looking cops into high schools to infiltrate drug rings. Jenko promises to take Schmidt under his wing and show him how to be cool in high school, but it turns out that styles and attitudes have changed just enough that Jenko’s efforts to seem cool fall flat. It turns out, however, that a funny, smart, fat kid who secretly has nothing to lose can fit right in, so Schmidt winds up hanging out with the cool kids, including the main drug dealer (Dave Franco, James Franco’s brother). Meanwhile, Jenko sulks his way into the science lab, where the nerds wind up lending him their technical expertise to help bust the drug gang.
I can’t even believe I just typed all that. The plot is so silly and predictable it actually hurts to describe it, but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller manage to make it work. The screenplay, co-written by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall, lets the actors stretch out and have fun, while letting the movie poke fun at its own hackneyed plot and lack of originality. Unburdened by an earnest plot or some misguided message, Hill and Tatum deliver excellent comedy. The supporting cast delivers as well, including Dave Franco (“You know what they do in prison to handsome guys like me? It rhymes with GRAPE!”) and Ice Cube as the “angry, black Captain.” “21 Jump Street” may not win the Oscar for Best Comedy, but it would win Best Comedy Based on a Short-Lived ‘80s TV Show, with room to spare.
4 stars out of 5