Due to his striking good looks and youthful appearance, Officer Tom Hanson (a breakthrough role for Johnny Depp) is approached with an undercover sting assignment where he would play a high school student and report on the scenes and happenings of . . . No, wait. That was the TV series from the late ‘80s. Lemme try again.
Due to their uncomfortably baby-looking faces and incompetence in the field, Officers Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are reassigned as high school students working on an undercover drug bust in 21 Jump Street. The two share a backstory from 2005–that’s a really long time ago, kids–where one stereotypical dumb jock, Jenko, picked on another stereotype, Schmidt, the fat but smart dork. After becoming partners, the two realize their potential: playing a laborious montage that ends with their becoming the best of friends.
Thus buds another bromance, leaving us to wonder whether the next 40 minutes will recoup our investment in this cinematic do-over. With Hill essentially returning to his role from Superbad as Seth, the fat and frustrated high school student, Tatum gets to spring the surprise. He’s a comic actor, not a foil, shifting convincingly from being incapable, insensitive and dumbstruck to sincere, hard-working and frustrated.
Watching a Hollywood remake (or, in this case, a continuation of a classic TV series) requires a certain tolerance for retro decor, costumes and dialog. 21 Jump Street certainly doesn’t stint on references to its ‘80s predecessor. But there’s fun in hearing Ice Cube’s character refer to the undercover project as “recycling shit from the past [hoping] no one notices,” not to mention the restaging of the series’ many ridiculous action sequences.
Since Hill himself wrote the screenplay, it’s fair to ask what he was thinking. Just a few months ago he broke out of the Jonah Hill stereotype in his Oscar-nominated dramatic performance in Moneyball. He could have followed up with Henry V, for Pete’s sake. But he does an excellent job working with directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) in creating a harmless, satirical comedy that actually delivers on a metafictional level. Yes, the characters exist as stereotypes of themselves–but they know it.
Officer Schmidt soon finds himself enjoying the high school high-jinks he missed out as a reject. Jenko, on the other hand, is lost without the classic cliques, and alpha dog status, to which he was accustomed. Schmidt prospers, which allows him to infiltrate the drug dealer’s inner circle of friends, who accept him and take him in as one of the cool kids. Jenko plays from the side, working with the chemistry geeks in bugging phones and eavesdropping on the cool drug dealers. Tension develops between the two friends as Jenko finds himself being rejected by Schmidt–sweet irony–over a lovely young thing.
Obviously aimed at grown-ups, given its R-rating, 21 Jump Street does manage to draw us in and make us feel the short-lived glory of Jenko and Schmidt’s second teen-hood. There is a moment when the story really does make you feel sort of special, as if you’ve just watched yourself receive applause at a school assembly. (“Gee, you really like me!”) There’s a little feeling of exclusivity, as if you’re in a clique of your own, with no teenagers allowed.
Those in the younger generation who sneak in to see the film, on the other hand, may be disappointed to find themselves watching the frustrations of adults trying to inhabit their world. “What’s the big deal?,” they may ask. “Isn’t that what parents are already doing in real life?”
And if you’re a true aficionado of the original series? (Yes, we know you’re out there.) My advice is, don’t go in expecting a faithful adaptation of your beloved. This version will just break your heart. But do go. You’ll find enough inside references and great cameos by former stars to reward your viewing. Take that as a fistbump from the creators.