The television show 21 Jump Street, about cops who go undercover as high-schoolers, debuted on Fox in 1987 — one year after the network premiered — and ran until 1991, launching the career of Johnny Depp (who cameos here along with former castmate Holly Robinson Peete). As a sign of the irrefutable progress made since the fear-mongering, anti-hedonist Reagan-Bush era, the mixed-bag, big-screen 21 Jump Street mocks that program's lethal earnestness with retrograde raunch, packing in more references to dicks and dick-sucking than twenty Manhunt profiles.
The series' coed, mixed-race quartet (sometimes quintet) of baby-faced police officers — who often appeared in post-episode PSAs about AIDS or drug abuse — has been retooled as a white-dude buddy action-comedy that announces its cynicism from the start. After Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), rookie cops who knew each other in high school in the mid-'00s, botch an arrest, their supervisor (Nick Offerman) reassigns them to a new detail, headquartered at an abandoned church at the address of the title, and described as a project from the '80s now being revamped: "All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect nobody to notice." (Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, whose first helming effort was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, will continue their pop-culture composting in their next high-concept project, Lego: The Piece of Resistance.)
Its own superfluousness readily acknowledged, 21 Jump Street tries — and sometimes succeeds — to get laughs from Schmidt and Jenko's redo of senior year as 25-year-olds. Dispatched to infiltrate a high-school drug ring by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, whose eruptive delivery — "There's...rumors...in the...Twitter-sphere" — is hilarious), Schmidt and Jenko go undercover as transfer students and brothers. But, mixing up their aliases, Schmidt, a member of the Juggling Society and all-around pariah during his real high-school years, is, in 2012, a drama-club star whose self-deprecation makes him tight with today's cool kids; Jenko, a thick, former varsity footballer, must now fake his way through AP chemistry.
The lead actors' own chemistry works in part thanks to the disparity in their body types. Although radically smaller than he used to be, Hill still has an endomorph's awkward carriage — an ungainliness balanced by Tatum's ripped physique and taurine strength. Their chub-cop/cut-cop juxtaposition is funniest when they're suited up in prom-night white tuxes and during a blowout they host at Schmidt's parents' house, now the officers' base.
But though these mismatched cops bounce well off each other, Tatum, in his first comedic lead role, is the better performer, both more riotous and more affecting. The actor mines the pathos in his meathead role, the once-popular jock now plagued with insecurities seven years after graduation. ("Is this playlist too dancey?" the slab of muscle frets to Schmidt during the party.) Hill, on the other hand, relies on the same kind of comedic tics that have defined him since 2007's Superbad: the nervous, verbose overexplaining of the underconfident smart aleck. The outrageous nonsense delivered meekly gets laughs on occasion, but Hill never leaves his comfort zone.
The movie also stays firmly within the schizoid parameters of recent American comedy, contradicting its own initial above-it-all contemptuousness — toward the source material, toward itself — by becoming a sticky bro love-in. "Make fun of people who care," is the advice Jenko gives Schmidt as they prepare to go to high school a second time. The jock soon discovers that the disdain that served him well seven years ago no longer applies in an era of eco-conscious teens. 21 Jump Street also drops the sneering after thirty minutes, ending with one cop declaring to the other, "I fuckin' cherish you."