Following in the hallowed footsteps of The Brady Bunch Movie, 21 Jump Street revives a vintage TV series and subverts it at the same time. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have written and directed TV and theatrical animation such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, resist the temptation to turn this into a live-action cartoon, which is all to the good. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are well cast as former high school rivals who meet up again as police academy students and become friends. Because of their incompetence, they are assigned to a special unit (headed by an amusing Ice Cube) and sent undercover to bust a drug ring in a local high school.
The twist that makes this somewhat ragged comedy work as well as it does is that the two cops revert to the level of high-school immaturity as they blend in with the genuine teens around them. Former nerd Hill is especially susceptible, as he is determined not to relive his uncomfortable past.
21 Jump Street goes for easy laughs wherever possible, raunchy or otherwise, in Michael Bacall’s screenplay (with a story co-credited to Hill) but the likability of its stars carries it a long way. Tatum turns out to have a sense of humor about himself, which comes as a pleasant surprise, and holds his own alongside his cohort. The film isn’t long, but it runs dry at a certain point, and tries to rescue itself by morphing into an action movie, with only middling results.
Still, I suspect that its target audience will feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth in this amiable and irreverent comedy, which makes fleeting nods to the 1980s TV show that spawned it.