Based on the late-1980s TV show that starred a young Johnny Depp, the movie “21 Jump Street” could have been yet another example of Hollywood avoiding new ideas and lazily recycling old ones.
Fortunately, the film’s creators are well-aware of the trend, and it’s reflected in an early line of dialogue; the small gesture is enough to raise the movie to a level of credibility.
But “21 Jump Street,” which tells the ludicrous story of undercover cops infiltrating high school, goes further.
Though their own high school careers, seen in flashback, were not so hot-stud Jenko (Channing Tatum) and nerd Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are now best friends and partners on the Metropolitan City police force.
Assigned to the Jump Street program, their mission is to uncover the source of a new drug called HFS, which stands for “holy” and two words that can’t be repeated here.
The twist is: Their identities are switched. The shy Schmidt ends up in drama class, while the not-too-bright Jenko fraternizes with the AP chemistry nerds.
Additionally, high school has changed. Today’s kids are green and tolerant, and frown upon arrogant jocks. In other words, tactics that once made Jenko popular no longer work, and Schmidt’s nerdiness becomes an unexpected asset.
Basically, the movie’s theme is that, no matter how crazy or willing we are, the world simply doesn’t operate like a cop movie — or cop TV show — says it should. This postmodern, one-upsmanship theme of life versus entertainment gives the movie endless opportunities for jokes.
The cops show up to a chase sequence wearing the most hysterical outfits imaginable, bracing themselves for car explosions that never happen. The characters don’t learn lessons, except maybe how to remain mismatched buddies.
By continually thwarting expectations, teasing and upending conventions, and remaining funny all the way up to, and during, the end credits, “21 Jump Street” is an honest-to-goodness anarchic comedy.
Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller made “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” before “21 Jump Street,” the third recent live-action release (after “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “John Carter”) directed by filmmakers who started in animation. Could it be that the attention to detail required to make an animated film breeds a tough work ethic and provides a fertile training ground?
Indeed. Rigorous planning likely was involved in taking the dumb concept of “21 Jump Street” and turning it into something that seems so effortlessly brilliant.