While initially the thought of Hollywood adapting one more best-forgotten bit of pop culture from the '80s might invoke the ire of anyone who had the misfortune of sitting through any of Michael Bay's Transformers films, 21 Jump Street is an unexpected comedic hit for the early months of 2012. It manages to take two lead actors who have the tendency to only be as good as their material, a plot that could have easily fallen apart, and a concept that begs for ridicule, and it creates something totally unique.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller make their live-action feature film debut here, clearly taking a page from the playbook of The Brady Bunch Movie and crafting a modern-day tale while winking satirically at the core tenets of the old TV show. Best known for co-directing the animated hit Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Street is their foray into more adult fare. While at times it seems that they may have studied the video shorts of the Lonely Island a little too closely for inspiration, the filmmakers adapt a style that creates a union out of their cartoonish action tendencies and a cast that is up for the job.
In Street, two young policemen (played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) are transferred to a special undercover division that specializes in crimes perpetrated in high schools. While they are close friends now, the two had an antagonizing relationship during their own school years, with Jenko (Tatum) basically bullying Schmidt (Hill). Now, seven years after graduating, they find themselves entering a world that neither are prepared for. Jenko has difficulty deciphering the new cliques that surround him, while Schmidt discovers that everything that made him the subject of ridicule years ago have become hip. Schmidt soon finds himself running with the cool crowd in an attempt to sniff out the school's drug dealers, while Jenko is staying after school to get tutoring in chemistry from the students he would have ridiculed just a few years earlier. Before long, Jenko finds the job of keeping Schmidt on task difficult as he discovers how much better high school is the second time around.
Tatum is an actor who has become a punching bag for critics who consider him to be nothing but your garden-variety pretty boy, but here, he once again shows the talent that is buried beneath the muscles. With the right directors, Tatum is capable of strong work, as he has shown in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire or by being the only bright spot in last year's Ron Howard bomb The Dilemma. In Street, Tatum comes close to blowing his supporting cast off screen with his performance as the doltish Jenko. He seems to base his character around imagining Dazed and Confused's footballer sidekick Don Dawson seven years after graduation, and by doing so, he produces another winning entry for his filmography.
One stumbling block in the film can be found in the relationship between Schmidt and Molly (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World's Brie Larson). While searching for the suppliers of the dangerous new synthetic drug HFS, Schmidt uses Molly for information on other students and quickly finds himself falling for her. While it is common knowledge every producer of a major film that has been released in the past five decades has felt the need to cram a love interest into their story, here we have a 25-year-old cop attempting a relationship with a high school girl. Yes, they make a clear effort to point out that she is 18, but it still comes off as icky on the screen. The filmmakers are asking us to root for a relationship between an awkward adult and a very young woman with daddy issues and a history of being lied to. Days later you will find yourself trying to reconcile this plotline with the rest of the movie and still find it difficult to fathom who thought it was a good idea.
A hilarious collocation of forgettable television cop drama and arrested development, 21 Jump Street is colossal fun that delivers on the trailer's promise for laughs, while also giving us one of the best TV adaptations to date. By the end, viewers will be counting down the days until they announce 21 Jump (Back 2 Da) Street.