Jonah Hill as Schmidt
Channing Tatum as Jenko
Brie Larson as Molly Tracey
Dave Franco as Eric Molson
Rob Riggle as Mr. Walters
DeRay Davis as Domingo
Ice Cube as Captain Dickson
Dax Flame as Zack
Chris Parnell as Mr. Gordon
Ellie Kemper as Ms. Griggs
Jake M. Johnson as Principal Dadier
Nick Offerman as Deputy Chief Hardy
Holly Robinson Peete as Officer Judy Hoffs
Johnny Pemberton as Delroy
Stanley Wong as Roman
Justin Hires as Juario
Brett Lapeyrouse as Amir
Lindsey Broad as Lisa
Caroline Aaron as Annie Schmidt
Joe Chrest as David Schmidt
Geraldine Singer as Phyllis
Dakota Johnson as Fugazy
Directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord
Police recruits Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum) have known each other since high school, when they were in opposing social circles, though when they attend the Police Academy together, they become buddies and then partners. After they botch up catching a drug ring, they’re forced into a revived program where baby-faced police officers go undercover at high schools, run by the tough Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), and they’re sent to infiltrate a high school where a dangerous designer drug has been killing students.
Based on the last few attempts, the thought of remaking an old television show as a movie doesn’t bode a lot of confidence and there’ve been so many police buddy action comedies in the past few decades, one wonders how many ideas are left. This may partially be why in the hands of co-writer and Exec. Producer Jonah Hill, this take on the “21 Jump Street” idea of undercover cops in high school actually works far better than expected.
It starts out with some easy laughs by showing Hill’s nerdy Schmidt in high school sporting an Eminem haircut that must have felt like the height of cool to himself but nobody else, which may be why he’s made the butt of jokes by Channing Tatum’s popular jock Jenko. Years later, the two bond at the Police Academy over the way they compliment each other by making up for each other’s weaknesses. Having your friend as a partner doesn’t make up for dumb mistakes though, which gets them thrown into an undercover program where they’re forced to relive the angst of their high school days.
Following a simple three-act structure, “21 Jump Street” introduces the characters, puts them into a situation, throwing a few obstacles in their way before ending with an action-packed resolution. If it was just about putting these two guys into the most uncomfortable situations, it would probably run out of steam pretty quickly, but instead, it uses the premise to explore friendship and how things change when roles are reversed.
The action-comedy pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum may seem like an odd one on paper, but like the partnership of Jenko and Schmidt, it works perfectly since they compliment each other so well, especially when they’re taken out of their comfort zones, essentially whenever Hill does action and Tatum gets to make himself the butt of a joke. The movie’s funniest moments are when they’re together since they really play off each other well, but they both have a lot of crazy things to do like Hill’s brilliant performance of a song from “Peter Pan,” done with drug-induced gusto. Far too often, he resorts to physical comedy or fat jokes at his own expense, which sometimes take away from some of the overall cleverness in some of the gags.
They’re surrounded by a great cast with Ice Cube bringing something extra fun to the tough police captain role that would normally be a cliché, taken even further into meta territory with an NWA tune in the soundtrack that has Ice Cube giving himself a shout-out. Dave Franco plays a similar wise-ass role as the one he played on “Scrubs,” as the popular guy in school dealing drugs, while the talented Brie Larson makes a convincing love interest for Hill’s character. There are also smaller recurring bits by funny TV character actors like Ellie Kemper, Jake M. Johnson and Nick Offerman, which sadly makes Rob Riggle the weakest link as the creepy gym teacher that doesn’t even compare to some of the great stuff he did in “The Other Guys” and “The Hangover.”
Directing duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the braniacs behind Sony Animation’s inspired “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” make a fine transition to live-action comedy, bringing the same sense of humor and timing they brought to their animated debut. For instance, many comedies have done drug-taking montages, but they take it into strange new territory that makes it funnier than it ought to be and they thrive in the film’s R-rated setting.
They also do an impressive job with the action scenes taking on car chases and gunfights that are as good as anything out there, while at the same time poking fun at typical action movie clichés that makes those action scenes seem far more original. Add to that a well-placed joke about Hollywood’s need to update old ideas and make them new again which should quickly quiet any detractors who might want to dismiss the movie due to its connection to the 80s TV series. But seriously, other than the title and the general premise, this is a different animal that would have worked just as well if called something else.
There are lots of great surprises along the way including one that delivers in a much better way anyone could ever imagine though the last act still falters somewhat because the general plot is set up in a way where things can only go in one of two directions. By then, you will love the duo of Hill and Tatum so much it will be easy to forgive how the plot has forced itself into a corner.
The Bottom Line:
While “21 Jump Street” may not fully redefine the buddy cop action-comedy genre, it seems vibrant and fresh due to the brilliant pairing of Hill and Tatum, the type of classic comedy duo that works so well it makes every moment delightfully fun and entertaining.