Silver Screen: 21 Jump Street ***
The big-screen incarnation of 21 Jump Street is a bizarre creature. Certainly the source material is not the single most ridiculous property to get the big-screen treatment; Hollywood's obsession with remakes has resurrected worse (Car Fifty-four Where Are You, Josie and the Pussycats, Speed Racer, McHale's Navy, Thunderbirds, Land of the Lost). But the Fox television show on which the film is based isn't particularly well-remembered and remains mostly famous for helping to launch the career of star Johnny Depp.
But 21 Jump Street isn't exactly a remake in the sense that, say, the Claire Danes/Giovanni Ribisi Mod Squad was a modernization of a pop-culture relic. Rather, it's a comedic take on the very notion of updating a mediocre, self-serious television property. It's a parody of a straight-faced 21 Jump Street remake that doesn't even exist.
The first few minutes of the film are edited at the pace of a trailer. We're rather rapidly introduced to Jonah Hill as nerdy high-schooler Schmidt, who's mocked by dimwitted jock Jenkno (Channing Tatum). The two reconnect at police academy and join forces, with Schmidt providing the brains and Jenko leading the physical training regimen. Despite their combined efforts, they still manage to be the two worst cops of all time, wildly bungling their first bust by botching the arrest, then firing guns into the air in celebration. That leads to a demotion in the form of a transfer to a new unit in which baby-faced recruits will go undercover as high-school students to stop youth crime.
It's here that the movie announces its real intentions. In his single scene as a gruff police chief, Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman explains that the undercover unit housed at 21 Jump Street is a project dusted off from the 1980s because “nobody has any new ideas.” Ha! Get it? Because this movie is a remake and these filmmakers don't have any ideas and we're all numbing ourselves with anodyne entertainment as the American empire dies! What a laff.
Lest you suspect the film had any ambitions, or, even worse, that it would even acknowledge the potential of having ambitions, Ice Cube seals the deal as the foul-mouthed, angry black police captain who tells everyone that he's the stereotypical angry black police captain. (The film reaches meta-awareness meltdown later when the soundtrack features an NWA track that repeatedly mentions Cube by name. We're drowning in irony and it feels fantastic!)
Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to infiltrate a ring of high-school dealers pushing a new party drug that has led to teen overdoses. Some of the best bits of comedy come when the pair first try to reestablish themselves as students but find the world of high school totally changed: Jenko's pushy jock antics are spurned by the popular kids, who are eco-conscious, open-minded, and antibullying, while former outcast Schmidt becomes popular through his antics in the drama club. A further mixup finds Jenko forced to sit through the high-level chemistry classes and infiltrate the group of chemistry nerds (including YouTube celeb Dax Flame and alt comic Johnny Pemberton).
Hill and Tatum make for a surprisingly adept comic duo. Hill, who cowrote the script with Michael Bacall (who helped adapt Scott Pilgrim versus the World), is trimmed down and in fighting shape, but still rocking his familiar comedy stylings as the insecure guy hiding behind hyperverbal outbursts. At this point, you either think it's funny or you don't. (I do.) Tatum, who can be a little inert in drama, is pretty nimble here as a likeable oaf learning to bond with the outcasts. He provided the only moments of amusement as a bit player in the otherwise dire comedy The Dilemma, and he's even funnier here.
As if this ungainly 21 Jump Street pseudo-parody weren't already weird enough, it takes a turn into abject absurdity in the final act, which is outlandish and surprisingly graphic. One of the movie's final gags is a stomach-turning piece of grossout comedy that pretty much proves the MPAA consists of a bunch of idiots with no reasonable standards-- I honestly can't believe more hasn't been made about it-- and it seems particularly out of place in a movie that's otherwise light and inoffensive, minus a little profanity.
If nothing else, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) have certainly made this hybrid 21 Jump Street more interesting than the average remake. But strip away the irony and cheap industry-insider jokes, and the core is still a dead concept reanimated in the name of capitalism. Yes, the movie is fairly funny, but truly enjoying it feels like some sort of surrender.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.