“21 Jump Street,” the new action/comedy flick from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, starts off strong and has some truly funny moments, but it ultimately proves uneven, falling prey to the pitfalls of this hybrid genre. The film is a remake of the 1987-1991 TV series of the same name, with a few modern twists and a few more laughs.
The movie stars Jonah Hill (playing the part of Schmidt), fresh off his Oscar nomination for “Moneyball,” and Channing Tatum (Jenko), as a pair of underachieving police officers. Hill, who with the exception of “Moneyball” plays essentially the same character in all his movies, is amusing, as we expect from him by now. Tatum, who this year it seems has been ubiquitous on the big screen, is charming, square-jawed and physically imposing. Hill’s goofy awkwardness is a good counter to Tatum’s physicality in much the same way it played well against Brad Pitt’s good looks in “Moneyball.”
We’re first introduced to the pair in 2005, where they attend the same high school. We see Jenko, a jock in a letterman’s jacket, the popular kid. We also meet Schmidt, wearing his “not-so Slim Shady” getup of bling and bleached blond hair. Schmidt is rejected after asking a pretty girl to the prom while Jenko and his friends laugh at his expense.
Smashcut to seven years later, when Schmidt and Jenko are attending police academy together. The two men realize they can benefit from each other’s strengths, and a friendship is formed.
Upon graduation, the two are paired up as bicycle cops in a park. Not surprisingly, both are underwhelmed by the assignment. After an attempted drug bust is botched, however, they find themselves reassigned to undercover duty in a local high school.
Their assignment: to infiltrate a drug ring dealing a synthetic substance we might think of as similar to spice. They report to 21 Jump Street, where they meet Captain Dickson, played by a very funny Ice Cube, the officer who oversees the clandestine cops. At this point Schmidt and Jenko go undercover as high school students.
After a mix-up in the principal’s office, their undercover identities are swapped. Now, in a reversal of roles, Schmidt must infiltrate the popular students’ circle and Jenko must infiltrate the nerds. Surprise, surprise, both men gain some insight into themselves and each other in the process.
Many of the supporting characters are very solid: Rob Riggle is hilarious as a teacher and track coach, Brie Larson is tremendous as Schmidt’s love interest, and Dave Franco (yes, that’s James Franco’s little brother) has a good turn as one their classmates. Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell is a scene-stealer as drama teacher Mr. Gordon. There’s also a cameo that fans of the original series will appreciate.
Viewers can expect lots of locker room humor and good one-liners. In many ways, this is a buddy movie that explores the shifting social dynamics between the two protagonists, and the movie is at its best when it focuses on the relationships between the characters. In the third act, however, the movie devolves into too much physical comedy and action sequences.
In tone and style, the movie brings to mind “Pineapple Express,” the 2008 stoner comedy/action film that also started very good but proved less than satisfying. Although it has some entertaining performances, the movie is less than the sum of its parts, and unfortunately, it never strays far from where we know it’s going all along.
21 Jump Street is rated R for language, violence, drug use and an unfortunate attempt to secure an appendage lost in a shooting.