Film review: 21 Jump Street (15)

Jenko (Channing Tatum) is an endearingly stupid jock-turned cop in 21 Jump Street
Jenko (Channing Tatum) is an endearingly stupid jock-turned cop in 21 Jump Street
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Though expectations weren’t high for this remake of an obscure TV series, it’s a genuinely funny and involving buddy cop caper

BASED on a 1980s TV show that only aired in the UK on then nascent Sky TV, 21 Jump Street wouldn’t have any cultural currency at all in this country if a minor actor from A Nightmare on Elm Street called Johnny Depp hadn’t been cast in it. Playing a youthful undercover cop recruited to infiltrate crime syndicates in high school, Depp spent years fostering his anti-authoritarian outsider image by dissing both the show (he called it “borderline fascist”) and the teen idol status it conferred up on him. Time, however, clearly heals all wounds. Judging from the “surprise” cameo he makes towards the end of this film version (his involvement has been one of the worst-kept secrets since production began), he’s certainly over whatever well-remunerated beef he had with the show. Thing is, by the time Depp does turn up, 21 Jump Street is also over him.

Conceived as a self-aware, action-heavy pastiche of both a mismatched-buddy cop movie and a high school comedy, this update of 21 Jump Street doesn’t actually need Depp’s distracting presence, primarily because it’s funny enough to work without any prior knowledge of the show. That’s partly down to a sly script that embraces, then builds on, lowered expectations (“All they do now is recycle shit from the past and hope no-one notices,” quips one character early on). And partly it’s down to the film’s secret weapon: the unexpectedly funny presence of Channing Tatum. Though Tatum has been in some unintentionally amusing films before (The Vow, Dear John and The Eagle immediately spring to mind), 21 Jump Street is his first straight-up comedy and, like Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys, he’s something of revelation.

Capitalising on his endearing sweetness and himbo dimness, he plays Jenko, a six-pack flaunting jock whose chiselled features have allowed him to breeze through high school (despite his limited intelligence), but haven’t guaranteed him excitement in his new job as a rookie cop. His partner, Schmidt (Jonah Hill), is a former classmate: a socially awkward, academically bright guy who was on the opposite end of social spectrum at school thanks to his tragic attempts to look like Eminem (as well as his general inability to stop emitting an all-round nerdy vibe). Despite their past differences, however, they’ve become firm friends – relying on each other’s respective strengths (Jenko’s ability to administer beat-downs; Schmidt’s ability to pass tests) to get them through the police academy and onto the streets – where they promptly botch their first drug bust (largely through excessive force and Jenko’s inability to remember the rights he has to read arrestees).

Assigned to something more befitting their collective immaturity, they’re transferred to the Jump Street undercover unit to infiltrate a high school in order find out who is manufacturing a new deadly psychedelic drug called HFS. It’s here that the film, and its stars (Tatum in particular), start coming into their own. In an amusing spin on the tropes of the high school movie, 21 Jump Street takes into account the mainstream popularity of Glee, geek chic and comic books and imagines a school in which the cool, popular kids are sensitive and respectful drama lovers who care about their futures. The outsiders, on the other hand, are the square-jawed, dumb-as-a-doorknob jocks – which doesn’t sit well with Jenko, especially after he’s forced to hang with the science nerds while Schmidt is embraced – for the first time in his life – by the cool clique.

Needless to say, this distracts them from the task at hand, and the film makes the most of this to amp up the bromance gags. As jealousy rears its head, Jenko begins to access a hitherto untapped reservoir of hurt feelings and Tatum’s naturally naïve, puppy-dog-like disposition makes him especially easy to root for as he mines the pathos of a suddenly insecure moron to perfection. Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay, riffs a little too heavily on his Superbad days at times, but as Schmidt grows in confidence after realising he’s getting the chance to relive his torturous high school days as one of the in-crowd, this simple but effective switch actually works well for the film.

The supporting cast does good work too. Bridesmaids’ Ellie Kemper is amusing in a small role as a repressed chemistry teacher so unused to being in the vicinity of hot guys she can’t stop openly lusting after Jenko. James Franco’s little brother Dave, meanwhile, takes the role of the leader of the cool kids off into pleasingly strange territory, especially as he keeps pushing Jenko’s buttons. Even Ice Cube is bearable as their angry, embrace-the-cliché captain.

Coming out in what is generally considered the pre-summer dumping ground for mainstream releases, 21 Jump Street feels like a minor triumph. It’s certainly preferable to any recent Johnny Depp vehicles.

Rating: ****

Directed by: PHIL LORD, CHRIS MILLER

Starring: JONAH HILL, CHANNING TATUM, ICE CUBE, DAVE FRANCO, BRIE LARSON