(Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2012)
Using the seldom-mentioned 1980s tv show, most notable for being Johnny Depps breakthrough, as a platform for a messily energetic action-comedy sounded a little lame from a distance. But upon closer inspection, 21 Jump Street proves to be a simultaneously crude and witty mash-up of various genres. Crucially, it's extremely funny.
The concept is the same as in the tv version (and allows the movie to function as a sequel thanks to a couple of late guest stars): a special
Undercover unit is established within the Police Department, sending youthful-looking Cops into High Schools to find drug dealers and suppliers. Recent Police Academy graduates Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill, who co-wrote) disastrously mess up their first bust and find themselves undercover in a modern High School, seeking out a drug ring, six years after they graduated.
Only the rules have changed completely. Jenko, once a popular jock, finds that in the new world of teens; tolerance, intelligence and environmental awareness count more than his macho attributes and an approach to high school he summarises as "never try at anything, ever, and make fun of people who do try". That makes geeky Schmidt one of the coolest guys in school, and the reversed roles test their relationship as they stumble towards solving their case.
The comedy elements are quintessentially modern, taking much from sketch comedy in continually changing tone and topic, working in slapstick, parody, satire, some screwball rom-com dialogue, and some surreal visual humour over the course of a slightly overlong running time, all of it shot through with the quirky deadpan irony common in American movie comedy since Wes Anderson perfected it. Hill and Tatum both excel and have real comedic chemistry, each reaching a sort of peak with the scene where they sabotage various classes under the influence of the synthetic drug they are investigating.
The action scenes are less convincing, but the gleeful edge brought to them by the lead character's approach - they celebrate explosions with the awe of pre-teens - makes them work. This is the real subject of the film, and its a common theme in the influential work of Judd Apatow, from whose stable Hill emerged: both the main characters here are boy-men, stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. Returning to High School only throws that into sharper relief, allowing them to relive different mistakes.
What is refreshing here is that they remain in that state at the end of the film, having grown and changed in other ways - Jenko by embracing his inner nerd, Schmidt by seeing the reality of being cool.
Backing them up is a frequently inspired supporting cast, featuring an angry Ice Cube as a walking, acknowledged stereotype, Rob Wriggle as a pumped-up gym teacher, Ellie Kemper hilariously losing the ability to speak coherently due to her lust for Tatum and Brie Larson as Hill's high school love interest.