Clever, hysterical and surprisingly full of heart, “21 Jump Street” proves that reboots don’t necessarily equal triteness. Inspired by the ‘80s television drama that made Johnny Depp a household name, the movie stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as fledgling cops sent undercover to a local high school in order to bust a deadly new drug operation.
In the year 2005, Schmidt (Hill) is a nerdy Eminem wannabe relentlessly teased by the dim-witted jock Jenko (Tatum). Fast-forward six years and the former high school classmates are reunited at the police academy. Schmidt agrees to help Jenko study for the written exam in exchange for extra physical training, and together the pair graduate and join the force. But instead of the exciting life of crime fighting they anticipated, the duo is tasked with patrolling parks on bicycles. Their overzealous attempt to bust a motorcycle gang for drug possession lands them in the 21 Jump Street undercover unit headed by the formidable Captain Dickson (Ice Cube).
Under the new identities “Brad” and “Doug,” Jenko and Schmidt pose as high school seniors to track down the source of a new drug responsible for the death of a student. Dickson encourages his team to embrace teenage stereotypes to fit in, but Jenko and Schmidt quickly realize that the social scene has changed drastically since they graduated. Rather than the letterman jacket-sporting crew of their glory days, the new in-crowd is the hipsters, led by the suavely nonchalant and environmentally conscious dealer Eric (Dave Franco). With the clock ticking as the drug spreads to other schools, the undercover cops must quickly acclimate to the unfamiliar social zone of today’s youth without losing themselves in their false identities.
While the film shares the name and basic premise of the original television series, the similarities end there. Under the direction of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”), “21 Jump Street” is full-on, balls-out action-comedy at its best and most satirical, thanks to a witty screenplay penned by Michael Bacall (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”). The millennial setting adds another dimension to the story, parodying contemporary pop culture as much as it elevates it.
Even so, it is the well-rounded cast that embraces and pushes the boundaries of the otherwise would-be archetypal characters. Hill and Tatum’s excellent comedic timing creates bro chemistry, while for his part Franco excels at blending stoner affability with pretentious hipster douchebaggery. Ice Cube’s character, a self-described “angry black man,” never disappoints, but the best celebrity cameo comes much later in the film’s final moments. (It’s so good, in fact, I can’t bring myself to spoil it.)
Feeling slightly drawn out at 109 minutes, “21 Jump Street” isn’t perfect, but it nonetheless hits its mark in making you laugh while experiencing twinges of nostalgia for long-lost teenage years. It restores a certain level of optimism toward Hollywood’s undying love of recycling old ideas and, moreover, won’t make you cringe with its sequel-suggestive ending.