I’ve never seen an episode of 21 Jump Street in my life. Up until recently, I probably couldn’t even tell you anything about the show besides “Johnny Depp was on it, right?” This didn’t stop me from being rather wary about a 21 Jump Street movie, especially one that’s playing the concept for comedy when I know the original series was serious. But then I found out it was directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also directed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. For those who did not see Cloudy, it took the book and loaded up on self-referential humor, ridiculousness, and an armory worth of Chekov’s guns, and they made it all work. And 21 Jump Street takes the same concepts, and shows they still work in live-action.
Schmidt (Jonah Hill, who also developed the story) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are former high school classmates who ended up on the police force together. Schmidt has the brains and Jenko has the brawn, yet they’re still completely incompetent and screw up their first arrest. This leads to them getting put in the 21 Jump Street program (a program explained as “an old concept that’s been recycled because we’ve run out of ideas”), which puts young-looking cops into a high school to attempt to infiltrate a drug ring. Unfortunately, an early schedule screw-up means that Schmidt ends up with the popular kids, while Jenko gets put with the nerds. And naturally, hilarity ensues.
Part of the reason the movie works so well is that it plays the concept for laughs. Yes, I’m sure 21 Jump Street was a perfectly great show back in the day, but the very concept just makes me raise an eyebrow now. Instead, it takes everything about it, gathers up as many cop and high school tropes as it can, and parodies them all. The chief of Jump Street (played by Ice Cube, in what’s a surprisingly good role for the man who did Are We There Yet? and Are We Done Yet?) outright admits from the start that he’s the angry black chief, and his simple plan of “infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier” is just repeated with no questions answered. A car chase partway through the movie takes place in the middle of traffic, along with several other ridiculous things happening along the way. And in the middle of this, there’s, let’s just say it, dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes. Yet they’re well-written dick jokes. After all, Jonah Hill basically started his career on dick jokes in Superbad. They don’t feel forced or groan-worthy. They have that almost naturalistic feel, the casual but ridiculous conversations that these characters constantly have. That just happen to revolve around dicks.
And for all the laughter, the movie still manages to hit the right amount of heart and morals. After all, it is a movie about repeating high school, the question being what would you do different the second time around. The nerd finding out that he actually fits in with the popular kids in the 7-year interim and the popular kid finding out that, not only are his antics no longer appreciated, but he’s now stuck with the nerds. The completely different aspect for the two not only gets some laughs, but it also gets the thought of how different things could’ve been. Now, some of the beats the story hits have been done far too many times before and aren’t even played for laughs (does it even ruin anything if I say that there’s a disconnect between Jenko and Schmidt at some point in the movie?). It somehow manages to work, but it does feel a little bit routine, and a few more laughs at some points could’ve probably helped.
Really, considering my expectations for a 21 Jump Street movie were pretty much “Why?” this movie far exceeded them. It’s a smart, but crude, comedy that has enough thought behind it to actually make it lasting rather than just another R rated comedy. Which is always nice.