There is a palpable love for the original television series in 21 JUMP STREET. A love that encompasses both the premise and that premises lack of credibility. As in, a group of police officers going undercover in various high schools in to infiltrate the illegal doings there, and bring the perps to justice. It was cotton candy fantasy at its most preposterous best and one of the many fans was one Jonah Hill, who has lived the ultimate fan fantasy of injecting himself into his favorite show. Rather than a re-hash of the original, though, this is a re-imagining by Hill, who came up with the story, and set it in the present with appropriate nods to the original and a whole lot of silliness.
Hill teams himself with Channing Tatum as Schmidt and Jenko, two former high school enemies who have since formed a symbiotic relationship since hitting the police academy. Schmidts the nerd with dexterity issues, Jenkos the jock with a moribund intellect. An unfortunate mishap during their first bust lands them at 21 Jump Street, under the angry and watchful eyes of Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube), and a mission to track down who is flooding a local high school with a new type of drug with a name that has an R rating.
Any pretence of this being anything other than a supremely well-crafted spoof is neatly dispensed with by Schmidt and Jenkos previous commanding officer, who sends them off to Jump Street by summing up why the operation was originally cancelled. Things like recycling ideas and running out of steam while hoping no one would notice. That tone is maintained throughout. A meta-joke which embraces the audience but not the characters on screen, who, to a person, play the comedy with a devastating straight face. Even the clichés are somehow in on the joke. When Jenkos inherent obtuseness confuses the undercover identities, he finds himself in AP chemistry, which he pronounces like a word not as initials, and Schmidt suits up his unlikely form for track and field. There is a sly underpinning of idiom that winks and nods and makes the mismatching of skill sets that somehow manages to work out a trope that is perfectly delightful.
Hill and Tatum, too, make the familiar stereotypes seem fun, not irksome. They bring a robust earnestness to the ordeal of facing high school again, but this time a high school with a hierarchy where the jocks dont rule, irony is dead, and there are cliques that mystify the ultra-cool Jenko in his quest to reclaim his rightful status as alpha male. Jenko, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, becomes even more confused and fumes with a surprised bemusement at his reduced status in a way that is almost poignant, as is the way his AP science teacher (Ellie Kemper) throws herself at him with a fierce timidity. Meanwhile Schmidt timidly sparks to, and then runs wildly with the idea of being in the cool crowd, and to the attention of Molly (Brie Larsen), the deadpan wisecracker who steals his heart and may even return his affections.
The humor is sharp, sometime broad, sometimes subtle, but almost always on target, even during such de rigeur interludes as the house party that goes out of control (Jenko frets about having enough chips), the second chance at their high school prom (Jenko frets about getting his bow-tie right), and when events conspire to have Schmidt and Jenko chasing bad guys down a freeway in a series of borrowed cars while wearing inappropriate attire (they both fret about explosions that never happen). The chemistry between Hill and Tatum is perfect as their bromance goes through many phases with an unexpected emotional resonance borne of the unspoken admiration each comes to have for the other, a feat pulled off effectively but without any showiness thanks to the skill of the two actors.
The original show looms over the screen adaptation in the best way possible, including inside jokes, deliberate references, and cameos that come when they are least expected and most welcome. 21 JUMP STREET is strictly for laughs and its a smart choice for a show that was a creature of its time. Nostalgia has rarely been better served than it is here.