The roads of movie history are littered with the cinematic corpses of TV-to-film adaptations gone wrong. Films like The Mod Squad and I Spy lie nearly forgotten on a spectrum where the best-case scenario is the high watermark of, say, McG's Charlie's Angels. But 21 Jump Street is something else, a film that takes even the "self-aware" nature of an Angels or Very Brady Movie and pushes it even farther, landing in a comic sweet spot between The Naked Gun and Hot Fuzz. It's an adaptation fit for a post-"Community" world, lovingly mocking the thought process that led to its existence, and simultaneously taking the TV show that inspired it seriously and not seriously at all.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play Schmidt and Jenko, two rookie cops who used to mock one another in high school but have since discovered it's more beneficial for both of them to be best friends. When they fail to read a perp his Miranda rights after their first arrest, their captain sends them to 21 Jump Street, the location of an undercover assignment where police officers who look like teenagers are assigned to go undercover at local high schools. Their first job: find the supplier of a deadly new drug before it spreads from one school to the whole district. When they arrive on campus, both of them instinctively expect to fall back into their old nerd/jock rivalry, but both are forced to adapt when they get their undercover identities backwards.
A sharp script written by Bacall and spot-on casting of Hill and Tatum go a long way to making 21 Jump Street successful. The "mixed-up identity" bit is a stroke of genius; a twist in a place where other writers would have seen a straightforward premise. A film where Schmidt and Jenko go right back to hating each other for the same reasons they did years ago is a conventional comedy -- funny, maybe, but probably too easy. Armed with a superior setup bursting with comic potential, Hill and Tatum knock it out of the park with a classic smart guy/dumb guy, schlub/athlete routine that weaves an unexpectedly sweet path through similar coming-of-age, best friends forever territory as Superbad with two grown-up cops, and without so much of that film's abrasiveness. There's no doubt 21 Jump Street is R-rated, but it's sort of a warm movie, built on the (assumed) brotherly bonds of the two leads.
However, the real captains of the ship are directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Their first film, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, was an unexpectedly but essentially straightforward adaptation of the book it was based on; here, they score by deflating all staples of the "reboot" and action-thriller formulas. By turning the whole premise of the film into an in-joke the audience can laugh at, Lord and Miller preempt scoffs and jeers at a "modern take" on the show and keep the focus on the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko. They even imbue the film with a measure of emotional weight (well, as much as a film like 21 Jump Street can and should have, anyway), and with characters people like and want to spend time with, the silliness surrounding them doesn't have to carry the film.
Of course, that silliness is also delivered with finesse: highlights include a ridiculous freeway car chase that spans multiple vehicles, and a dramatic fight that occurs while one of the two participants is suspended on wires on the school's stage. They even have a bit for fans of the TV show that's probably better than any other "source material" reference in a movie, because it's actually integrated into the story and has a point beyond pandering to fans. The thought of another movie of a canceled program from the '80s might have audiences sighing in resignation, but 21 Jump Street pulls it off in style, sneaking a film with strong characters and sly humor into theaters under the guise of unoriginality.
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