“Get ready for a lifetime of being badass motherfuckers,” exults Jenko (Channing Tatum) as he graduates from the Police Academy. He and his best buddy Schmidt (Jonah Hill) nod, ready. Cut to the boys in blue shorts and white helmets, pedaling bicycles and fetching Frisbees from a pond.
If the joke is neither hilarious nor original (see: Underclassman), it does indicate the sort of visual jokes that will punctuate 21 Jump Street. That is, jokes that make as much use of time and space as a TV show, that solicit quick and easy laughs, that assume viewers are already a few steps ahead, so really, why bother trying to be too clever? Or maybe it’s a few steps behind. Even as the movie leans heavily on the notoriety of its source (the television series that launched Johnny Depp, whose cameo here is cute before it turns just cloddish), it also forgets most of it, exchanging the leather-jacketed multiculti ensemble for a couple of two white boy buddies, adding an angry black captain (named “Dickson,” of all things, and played by Ice Cube, of all people) and an obviously inappropriate love interest.
That’s not to say that 21 Jump Street doesn’t know what it is. It offers up regular gags about the partners’ whiteness and their oldness, as well as their prosaic types. Schmidt is the nerd, of course (back in his high school days, revealed in a start-the-movie flashback, he tried too hard to look like Eminem and wore braces to boot), and Jenko the jock (also in that same flashback, behaving especially heartlessly toward the cowering Schmidt). On going back to high school in 2011, they find that their strengths and weaknesses are now inverted: it’s good to be smart, to like the environment or politically correct phrasing, and less good to be mean, even if you think you’re being funny.
The same might be said of the movie, which lines up a series of jokes that are at once cynical and heartfelt, conjuring the same motley tone you’ve observed in a thousand other buddy movies. The deputy chief acknowledges the premise is tired (in sending the officers undercover in high school, the department, he says, is recycling “shit from the past and expect us all not to notice”), and the captain explains the plan (a designer drug is killing students, not an obvious laugh-getter, and the boys must “infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier,” a simple enough idea he has to repeat at least twice). In turn, the boys resent their assignment, muck up their roles (so Schmidt has to pass as the jock and vice versa), and flirt with underage girls. Cars crash, gas trucks blow up, and the buddies throw an awesome party to impress the coolest dealer, Eric (Dave Franco) and, of course, provide requisite glimpses of babes and vomit and angry parents.
The mayhem is mild by current high school movie standards, and mixed with buddy movie hijinks, penis jokes, and dollops of R-rated language (though hearing Jonah Hill whining, “My mom’s such a dick!” is less hilarious than it might have looked on paper). Spoofing both genres, 21 Jump Street has it a few ways, including the all too familiar end of spoofs, which is to reaffirm basic movie-world principles. The boys remain jejune but capable, stupid but lucky, homophobic but mildly homoerotic (“I would’ve tooken a bullet for you,” explains Jenko during one spat) — even as their hetero credentials are secured by non-relationships with girls. Jenko’s half-pursued by a smitten teacher (Ellie Kemper) and Schmidt half-pursues the prettiest, brightest girl in their class, Molly (Brie Larson).
These female adornments mark the boys’ immersions in their revisionist high school experiences: Jenko commits to the nerds (mastering their chem lab password: “Kneel before Zod!”) and Schmidt — on drugs — manages a weirdly riveting version of “I’ve Gotta Crow” during school play auditions for Peter Pan, surprising himself and his designated Wendy, that is, Molly. Of course, not growing up and going nowhere are apt themes in a movie sucking its life vapors from a late-’80s TV series, a series itself borrowing from the previous decade’s The Mod Squad.
Less retro than arrested, 21 Jump Street doesn’t challenge the truisms of high school and buddy movies. It doesn’t invoke nostalgia. And it doesn’t exert much effort even in its most frantic action scenes. It has a simpler end in mind. It sends Jenko and Schmidt back to high school to learn something about themselves and maybe something else about the cruelties of high school… and shoot off a bad guy’s penis in the process.