The record on movie versions of decades-old television shows is not a pretty one. I call them lunchbox movies because I can envision the pitch meeting with the young studio executive smiling, “Oh, I had the lunchbox for that show! It was my favorite! Yes, I’d love to do a movie version of ‘SWAT!'” For every “Charlie’s Angels,” there are a half-dozen, well, “Charlie’s Angels 2,” not to mention — please, don’t mention — “Land of the Lost,” “Bewitched,” “The Wild, Wild West,” “”The Dukes of Hazard,” “The Avengers,” “Inspector Gadget,” “I Spy,” “My Favorite Martian,” and “Starsky and Hutch.” Whether you play it straight or skewed, it’s very difficult to catch lightning in a bottle, and even harder the second time. So it’s a relief and a pleasure to report that “21 Jump Street” is a lot of fun. It is a wild comedy version of the 1987-91 police drama starring Johnny Depp, about young-looking cops who go undercover in high schools.
Channing Tatum (Jenko) and the newly slimmed-down Jonah Hill (Schmidt) star as the undercover cops. In high school, Tatum’s character was cool and Hill’s character was a nerd. But they become friends at the police academy and are made partners after graduation. “I thought there’d be more car chases and explosions,” Jenko says as they ride their constabulary but not at all exciting bicycles on beach patrol. When they mess up their first arrest by forgetting to read the perp his Miranda rights, they are sent to 21 Jump Street, an abandoned church that is the headquarters for the high school infiltration operation headed by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), a pepperpot who endearingly owns up to embracing his stereotype and hilariously explains that their program is nothing but recycling a cancelled idea. Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to play brothers to track down the source of a very powerful and dangerous new hallucinogen that has already killed one boy. Jenko will be the cool jock to find the purchasers of the drug and Schmidt will be the science nerd to find the manufacturer — and they will have to move in with Schmidt’s doting but smothering parents.
And of course everything goes wrong.
They are no better at remembering their fake identities than they are at remembering the Miranda warnings. Jenko ends up having to play the brainiac and Schmidt has to be the jock who takes drama class. And in one of the script’s shrewdest and funniest observations, the seven years since they were in high school, a lot has changed. It isn’t just that calling a girl on a cell instead of texting is so old school she thinks it must be coming from one of her parents’ friends. The fundamental rules they both thought they understood about what makes someone cool like the iconography of one-strapping vs. two-strapping the backpack and the bedrock divisions of high school phylum, genus, status, and species seem to have moved or disappeared. For Jenko and Schmidt, figuring out high school is an even more daunting mystery than tracking down the drug dealers.
Tatum, best known for syrupy romances and action movies, turns out to have crackerjack comic timing and Brie Larson and Dave Franco are standouts as students who exemplify the boundary-crossing of the current generation of high school students. She’s cool and does drama — and Larson has a warmth, wit, sweetness, and sparkle that is utterly winning. He’s all about protecting the environment and has an entrepreneurial side that isn’t always legal. And it is fun to see Franco showing off the off-beat vibe he is so good at in the Funny or Die videos with his brother James. The strong supporting cast includes cameos from some “21 Jump Street” original stars and the inevitable Rob Riggle doing his inevitable obnoxious shtick. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the witty “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) maintain a strong balance between action and comedy and keep things energetic with big scenes that include an out-of-control teen party and the prom. They also balance appreciation for the original series with a very contemporary sensibility. At the end they make it clear that everyone is up for a sequel and I found I was, too.
Parents should know that this film is intentionally provocative and offensive. It has nonstop very crude humor, sexual references and brief explicit situations involving teens and adults, constant very strong and vulgar language, teen and adult drinking and drug use including hallucinogens, as well as comic but graphic bloody violence with characters injured and killed.
Family discussion: What were the most important differences between the time Schmidt and Jenko were in high school and their return? What surprised them most about taking each other’s roles?
If you like this, try: the “21 Jump Street” original television series and two other movies about adults undercover in high school, “Never Been Kissed,” and “Hiding Out”