'21 Jump Street' manages to garner strength as it goes

Jonah Hill, left, and Channing Tatum star in "21 Jump Street."
March 26, 2012

Growing up, I was the target demographic for “21 Jump Street,” but to me, it always seemed like some awkward mash-up of “Miami Vice” and an after-school special. It wasn’t a terrible show, just not a fondly cherished one. I am apparently not alone, as it sort of vanished into the pop-culture ether, relevant only for catapulting lead Johnny Depp into the stratosphere (and giving Richard Greico a career highlight).

Striking similar notes as the perfectly pitched “The Other Guys” did last year, “21 Jump Street” is its younger, made-for-TV sibling. It’s aware of its limitations (in a wonderfully dismissive piece of dialogue grumbled by the underused Nick Offerman (“Parks & Recreation”) as a police chief. But it embraces its shortcomings along with its opportunities.

Twenty-something cops Schmidt (played by Jonah Hill) and Jenko (played by Channing Tatum) are assigned to go undercover at a high school to break up a powerful new designer drug network. And even though only seven years have passed since they toted backpacks through the high school halls, things have changed quite a bit. Sensitivity reigns, and the social structure has tilted as our two leads soon find their high school roles (literally) reversed from their youth.

Unlike many films of the buddy-cop genre, “Jump Street” manages to garner strength as it goes. Of the factors contributing to this, Hill, the film's star/cowriter/coproducer deserves much credit. Not only does his character provide some of the film's biggest guffaws (of which there are many), but as a writer he manages to sneak in a surprising amount of humanity.

He ingratiates himself immediately, as we witness, circa a 2005 flashback, his painfully awkward attempt to blend in, sporting an oversized white T and a hideous Eminem cut-and-bleach (offset, of course, by the always humiliating set of oversized braces). The school is also home to the long-haired dim-bulb jock Jenko, who is facing expulsion for his lack of attention to the books.

They wind up in the same police cadet class, and quickly realize how each needs the other to pass the rigorous physical and mental tests to become an officer. They form a bond that is only strengthened when they are assigned the same duty as bike patrol officers. After a flub during an arrest, they are reassigned to a long-defunct program where they must revisit that painful place of their youth.

The film is dogpiled by a talented group of comedic support, from "The Daily Show's" Rob Riggle as an excitable gym coach, to Ice Cube as their perpetually scowling captain. And I'm not sure how much leeway each was given to improvise lines, but it seems as though everyone was having a blast with their roles. Hill shared the writing with Michael Bacall, who also penned "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." They balance winking satire with a surprising amount of clever left-field gags and heart.

The film does it all with with surprising efficiency, too. Where too many modern comedies tend to bloat far past their necessary running time ("Bridesmaids"), "Jump Street" keeps it sleek and lean.

"21 Jump Street" doesn't break any new ground with the format, but given its ability to comedically surprise without dipping into Adam Sandler's mean-streak humor barrel, it is far better than it has any right to be.

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