The Unexpected Delights of ‘21 Jump Street’

Movies are rarely precisely what you expect going into them, but it’s rare that I’ve attended a movie with so few hopes as I had for 21 Jump Street, Jonah Hill’s seemingly-unnecessary remake of the classic television series about cops gone undercover in a high school starring Johnny Depp, and emerged so thoroughly happy. Gone are the after-school special themes of the original, and in their place is an anarchic, often quite sweet action comedy about an odd couple on the trail of a synthetic drug that still manages to take on issues ranging from rising tides in popular opinion as represented by high school students to angry black cop cliches, represented here by Ice Cube. As he explains to Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) after they’re reassigned to his squad following an unsuccessful stint on bike patrol, he’s black, he’s a cop, and sometimes he gets angry.

The movie’s smartest, most subtle move may be its imagination of how, in the five years between Jenko and Schmidt’s graduation and their return as undercovers, high school has changed dramatically. Out with the muscle cars, and in with the vehicles powered by leftover cooking oil from the Chinese place. Acing your admission to UC Berkley is the new cool. Gay kids of color are fully integrated into the popular crew. Jenko, who finds himself displaced in the new hierarchy, the meathead slouch and eagerness with a punch that served him so well five years ago now liabilities, blames all the changes on pop culture, declaring “Fuck Glee!” But he’s liberated by the chance to set off bottle rockets and exchange lightsaber secret handshakes with the nerds, just as Schmidt gets another chance at creating decent high school memories. And while it’s not as if movies from Clueless to Ten Things I Hate About You to Mean Girls haven’t been delineating new cliques for years, there’s something refreshing about 21 Jump Street‘s suggestion that there’s been a fundamental shift in values.

It takes nothing away from that articulation that it’s embedded in a very violent, very funny, very silly action movie. It’s a delight to see Channing Tatum, who never quite seems to be taken seriously even as he’s done everything from staying light on his feet in Step Up; to playing wounded and violent in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (the movie that Hill says made him want to work with Tatum on 21 Jump Street); to putting in a turn in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies; be loose and profoundly goofy. If he wants to, Tatum could develop some of the antic physicality of Vince Vaughn. And while I’ve often found Jonah Hill a somewhat distant presence, the opening sequence in the movie, when he’s a trembling, bleach-blonde Slim Shady clone who harbors no more baroque dreams than attendance at prom is tremendously endearing (even if it harkens back to my senior year a decade ago rather than to 2007). Watching them bumble through action sequences that simultaneously honor and point out the ridiculousness of the conventions of the genre is a delight, particularly in one sequence where they blow up a truck full of chickens.

The women are negligible. Ellie Kemper is funny in a tiny turn as a teacher who can’t quite stay within the bounds of propriety when Jenko shows up in her AP Chemistry class, for which he is manifestly unprepared. Brie Larson has slightly more to do as Molly, the vivacious high school senior who become Schmidt’s ticket both to school’s main dealer and to membership in the popular crowd. But Jenko and Schmidt’s relationships with women isn’t really the point—as Tatum said after the screening when asked about his transition from romances to comedies, “well, it’s a bromance.” And it’s to Jenko that Schmidt turns after a moment and trauma and realization, telling him “Okay, let’s make a baby.”