'21 Jump Street' Review: Turning High School Into A Chaotic Comic Playground

21 Jump Street is a movie about adult cops pretending to be high school students in order to take down a burgeoning drug ring. It is a movie about a grand array of familiar high school stereotypes, and how in the end they are all bullshit. 21 Jump Street is also a riotously funny, gleefully excessive comedy. The idea seems to be "since someone is going to update this property sooner or later, let's have more fun with it than they would." The result is a small movie full of big silliness, and one that made me want to see more comic turns from co-star Channing Tatum.

Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Tatum, also exec producers) are former high school acquaintances now working as cops. Though their early relationship was antagonistic at best, the two help each other though the academy, forming a real friendship in the process. Their first arrest is a disaster and they're kicked over to a loose cannon undercover operation called Jump Street. Their mission: infiltrate a school, get in with the dealers, and find the suppliers. Oh, and don't have sex with students or staff.

All involved, from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to screenwriter Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Project X) and Hill and Tatum, fully understand that the concept, superficially, is dumb, and that the idea of crafting a serious film from it would be incredibly dumb. Rather than trying to legitimize the studio green light for Jump Street with grim drama they accept and encourage the implicit foolishness. ("Embrace your stereotypes!" bellows the stereotypically angry black police Captain played by Ice Cube with a wink buried deep in a glower.) The approach doesn't feel cynical, and the movie feels like the prime motivators (Hill chief amongst them) knew just how to turn a remake idea into a playground.

Lord and Miller embraced even deeper foolishness when they co-directed the wonderfully charming animated movie Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Then, their solution to crafting more than a grab bag of wild gags was to ground the goofiness through characters that implicitly accept the insanity around them, and are more human for doing so.

The same approach works for Jump Street. Due to a 'not even believable but so what?' mixup, Hill is cast as the cool, athletic kid and Tatum the brainy guy, the better to call high school movie roles into question. Those reversals point to each character's fears: will Tatum ever lose his high school 'cool' factor and be stuck being merely average? Will Hill ever grow beyond his super-nerdy persona and into an adult sort of capability? Will the two of them ever not be caught up in the chaos of their own ineptitude? (Tatum in particular runs with his moments of comedy and insecurity; he's not afraid to poke fun at his own image through this role.)

They're familiar concerns, which is to say that they're close enough to universal. Not to say that Jump Street trades in any objective 'realism,' but it does try to balance all-out jokes with the character chemistry between Hill and Tatum. Jokes always win the Rochambeau with drama, and that's a fault — the edit we see in theaters would rather squeeze in an extra laugh than, say, take that extra developmental step between Tatum's character and the trio of science geeks that become his unlikely pals. It feels occasionally like no one had the heart to just cut a little bit deeper across the board.

But I'm not going to ding a comedy too hard for being funny — I'm the same guy that wanted more outrageousness and less story out of Wanderlust, after all. Jump Street knows what we expect out of buddy movies and action comedies and stories set in high school, and then proceeds to give most of those assumptions at least a healthy slap or two. It indulges that process a bit, but I can live with that. The mad, playful energy on screen is difficult to resist in the moment.

(I'm trying to resist saying that if you like what Edgar Wright has done with genre and comedy, you'll also probably get a kick out of 21 Jump Street. But avoiding that idea isn't getting me anywhere so let's just run with it. The involvement of Scott Pilgrim co-writer Michael Bacall probably isn't incidental to that vague similarity.)

Compared to Cloudy, this insanity isn't quite as outsized, thanks to the difference between live-action and animation. So we get a car chase involving a driver's training car with two sets of controls (a great setpiece for a high school film) rather than a scene set in a restaurant where giant food literally rains onto patrons' heads. The crazy is closer to the margins, emerging through silly/Scott Pilgrim-ish intertitles, drug trips, and a set of end credits that embraces the "all-in" YouTube mentality that is a defining media characteristic to anyone under 20.

 21 Jump Street would rather shoot a guy in the junk than really dismantle high school movie tropes in earnest — Cube recommends embracing, not destroying stereotypes, after all. But the movie also never lets us forget that it is a high school film full of 20-something 'students' — that is, just like almost every other high school film. In this case, that self-awareness is used as a pass to run riot through the halls. The capering is just a goofy, playful romp. But then, this is a comedy based on a teen cop show, after all./Film score: 7.8 out of 10