Laugh all you want: life never stops being like high school. Never. is an action comedy that holds that truth to be self-evident. It stars Jonah Hill, 28, and Channing Tatum, 31, as cops who go undercover in high school to bust a drug ring and wind up futilely trying to correct everything they screwed up in their teens. “How old are you – 40?” asks a fellow student as Tatum (in a revelatory, bust-out comic performance) tries to squeeze into a dainty classroom seat.
Hey, wait. Wasn’t there a Fox TV series with Johnny Depp that did the same shtick back in the 1980s? Yeah. But 21 Jump Street is no cheeseball reboot. Producer Hill, who came up with the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall (Project X), has too much affection for the TV series to reduce it to a spoof. A priceless cameo from Depp, in the role he created and about which my lips are sealed, confirms it. This bracing new take on 21 Jump Street has a playful spark all its own. It’s a blast.
Oscar nominee Hill (I love saying that about the Moneyball star) is terrific as Schmidt, the brains of the duo, since Tatum’s Jenko barely mustered out of the police academy without his coaching. These dudes hated each other in high school. Check out the hilarious opening flashback with jock Jenko and supernerd Schmidt, in braces and dyed-yellow curls like a not-so-Slim Shady, emerging as natural-born enemies.
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, known for the animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, have an instinct to go for giggly farce, but Hill and Tatum stay admirably rooted to character. Assigned to the Jump Street unit that’s been dead since the 1980s, the team takes R-rated orders from hardass Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who has scant use for the “Justin Bieber/Miley Cyrus muthafuckas” under his command. Schmidt and Jenko pose as brothers at the same high school to finger a student pusher. That he’s clean-cut vegan Eric (Dave Franco, brother of James, with a distinctly wicked comic gift) is part of the joke. “I blame Glee,” says Jenko, who can’t cut it with the cool crowd. They prefer Schmidt, the anti-bully who fearlessly dons tights to star in a musical of Peter Pan and actually has a shot at nailing his Wendy (Brie Larson).
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21 Jump Street throws way more balls in the air than it can comfortably juggle. The car chases have a frantic Michael Bay whoosh, but the kick comes in watching Schmidt and Jenko steal weed from a police evidence locker to throw a stoner house party and then, to prove they’re not narcs, get high on a drug that could literally blow their minds. Are we always still in high school in our heads? 21 Jump Street thinks so. And Hill and Tatum are just the crazy-ass comedy team to prove it.