Even though it takes a while for "21 Jump Street" to really hit its stride, what we end up with is a refreshing take on very familiar material and an occasionally side-splitting screwball comedy that reminds us how funny high school can be from the right angle. Though not without a few flat jokes and the usual sophomoric tantrums, "21 Jump Street" has it where it counts, and you might even by shocked to see that Channing Tatum can be as funny as Jonah Hill.
The dorky, fumbling idiot and the dumb as a bag of rocks cool kid. We've seen odd couples on screen many, many times, but here we have two characters that everyone who went to high school is probably familiar with. Played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, Schmidt and Jenko are such polar opposites that they might as well have gone to two different high schools, even though they actually passed each other in the halls every day. Schmidt (Hill) is brainy but socially hopeless and Jenko is just as much of a misfit, though most people don't notice in high school because he looks like he just walked off a GQ shoot. Clearly, the universe has not intended for them to be friends.
But once we throw in a little Hollywood plot magic, they find each other crossing paths as they join the local police force. While on their own they lack the tools to do much of anything in terms of law enforcement, together they seem to add up to one nearly functioning police officer. Not that this inspires management to send them into the thick of the criminal underworld, and soon they find themselves cruising around low-crime areas on bicycles scanning for misdemeanors. Jenko reflects that there aren't nearly as many chases as he had hoped. Well, at first anyway.
Soon, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) realizes that they are just about perfect for a special mission targeting a new high school drug ring. With our two immature heroes, Dickson seems to have the perfect two cops to go undercover and pose as high school kids, even if they look about a decade too old. Because Schmidt and Jenko usually point out the absurdity of the plans and strategies ahead of time, we're saved from having to do so ourselves. Instead, we get to focus solely on how outmatched our doomed heroes are.
Though there are a couple good gags early on, "21 Jump Street" gets going once Schmidt and Jenko head undercover and have to figure out how to mingle with high school students. Their high school experiences may seem fairly fresh in their minds, but these days it's a different world all together. In just a few years, the high school universe has grown strange and mysterious, and they at first seem lost in the bizarre social and fashion trends.
As they stalk the cool kids, who they believe to be the school's drug kingpins, we get a series of funny scenarios showing the extremes they'll go to fit in with the popular crowd, and the screenplay has a clever way of highlighting the very different talents of Hill and Tatum. Hill is back in his "Superbad" mold as the geeky-looking kid breaking out of his shell, though he's at his best when he's trying to explain a situation that's too absurd to actually explain. Much of the time he spends doing damage control for whatever ridiculous thing pops out of Tatum's mouth, and this leads to some of the best lines in the movies.
On the other side, Tatum actually shows flashes of James Franco's brilliantly flaky pot dealer in "The Pineapple Express," which was far from expected considering Tatum's past role limitations. You may laugh and snicker and say that a dumb jock is a natural fit for Tatum, but it's far from easy to successfully act like a hopeless dimwit on-screen. The point is that either way you'll probably find yourself laughing.
As for the actual plot, there is an underdeveloped action story that leads us to the chase scenes that Jenko was hoping for, though "21 Jump Street" is much better as a comedy than an action flick. There aren't many side characters that do anything but advance the plot, which for once might actually be a good thing because it might have taken focus away from Hill and Tatum. Ice Cube has been playing Ice Cube for years and of course the humor in his character's name, Captain Dickson, is not lost on the screenplay or our heroes. As far as phallic jokes go, there have been far worse ones than those on display in "21 Jump Street."
Even if "21 Jump Street" does hit some very predictable notes, it is still a very funny adult comedy that allows us to relive high school through a perfectly matched pair of idiots. It may be based on a TV drama from the 1980s, but it's all goofy fun and clever gags about what it takes to fit in the popular kids, which works so much better than a serious big screen adaptation. Jonah Hill, who also co-wrote the screenplay, once again shows that he's the reigning king of screwball high school comedies and Channing Tatum is surprisingly effective as his unlikely counterpart. For once, they make a tandem you might even want to see in a sequel.
by RTT Staff Writer
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