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21 Jump Street admits from the start, in a nicely timed and very meta joke, that it's really just an attempt to mine the past for nostalgia and ideas-- in this case, adapting a somewhat beloved 80s TV show about undercover cops in high school. But while that might have been Sony's goal when they set up the movie with star and producer Jonah Hill, the movie itself is more of an excuse to combine a surprisingly touching buddy story with wild, absurdist comedy from the directors who also brought you Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Unpredictable and very silly but with real emotional stakes, 21 Jump Street makes up for a shaggy script with a wily, endearing energy that feels like anything but a tired retread.
The movie contains a lot of pleasant surprises, but none bigger than the performance from Channing Tatum, known until now as a hunky but dull romance and action star. He showed a glimmer of comedic potential in Ron Howard's The Dilemma, but it's nothing compared to what he brings to 21 Jump Street as Jenko, the former high school burnout who, as a cop, never quite bothered to learn the Miranda Rights and got through the Academy largely through coaching from his buddy Schmidt (Hill). We meet Jenko and Schmidt briefly in high school as two very different kinds of losers, and a zippy montage gets us to their first weeks on the job as bike cops, ineptly making an arrest in a public park and celebrating as if they've saved the planet. They're immature and not especially good at their jobs, but their unlikely friendship feels believable from the start, as Tatum and Hill make a surprisingly natural comedic duo.
As you know, Jenko and Schmidt are assigned to work undercover at a high school to bust a drug dealing ring, and from there the script by Michael Bacall takes on a very, very loose structure, setting up a romantic interest for Schmidt in hip high-schooler Molly (Brie Larson), a gang of geeky new friends for Jenko, and a weak antagonist in Dave Franco's Eric, a thoroughly modern drug dealer who writes songs about recycling and has plans to attend Berkeley. Schmidt and Jenko are confronting their own lingering demons from high school in very true and very funny ways, to the point that returning to the ostensible plot starts to feel like a drag after a while.
The movie hits a high point early when Jenko and Schmidt are forced to take the drugs they're rounding up and Tatum proves himself as an able physical comedian, but otherwise meanders its way to a big climax set-- where else?-- at prom. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller keep up the film's energy through a Michael Bay-inspired car chase, a genuinely fun party scene and a ridiculous fight taking place during a performance of Peter Pan, but in the rare moments where you're not laughing, it's hard not to notice that the narrative is spinning its wheels.
And yet, the rambling narrative makes more room for small supporting turns from a whole bunch of funny people, including Ellie Kemper as a science teacher fighting her attraction to Jenko, Jake Johnson as an overwhelmed (but also miscast) principal, Ice Cube as the harsh-talking police commander, and especially Rob Riggle as the track team coach trying to turn Schmidt into a superstar. A lot of these characters don't get as much screentime as they deserve, but they add to 21 Jump Street's weird tapestry of joke after joke after joke, a comedic world constantly teetering on the edge of logic and getting away with way more than you'd think was possible.
If you saw the delightfully weird Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, it's less surprising that 21 Jump Street is as light on its feet and funny as it is. But from Tatum's perfect comedic chops to the gonzo drug-use sequence to the well-timed action beats of the finale, 21 Jump Street never runs out of surprises, compensating for a lack of narrative steam with a wit and enthusiasm unmatched by most modern comedies. Who would have guessed that a 21 Jump Street movie would be not just good, but in its best moments, kind of great?