As a teenager, Jenko (Channing Tatum) was a popular jock prone to slamming kids into lockers and doling out titty-twisters. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was a hapless nerd with a bleached-blond Eminem bowl cut and braces large enough for Iron Man to envy. Seven years later, the two men are now police officers, relegated to bike patrol in public parks, until they bust a group of shady dopers and are promoted to the Jump Street unit, assigned to go undercover as high schoolers and bust a drug ring.
Their barking mad captain (Ice Cube) — the sort of boss who will never be pleased no matter how well you do your job — warns them there are two conditions they must adhere to, always: One, do not get expelled. Two, do not have sexual relationships with students or faculty members.
Of course, in about two minutes the bumbling cops have broken both rules. But what makes “21 Jump Street” so funny and exciting and lovable is all the stuff you don’t see coming. The best comedies — the ones that endure, the ones you can’t help but stop and watch again when you come across them on TV, the ones with jokes that still make you laugh the 40th time around — are extremely difficult to pull off. “21 Jump Street” makes it all seem easy. This is the rare breed of Hollywood studio production that has the brash spirit of an independent picture and the sharp wit of a stand-up comic. The movie’s budget is big, but so are its ideas and smarts. It is also absolutely, consistently hilarious and decidedly R-rated, but never crude or mean-spirited or dumb.
“21 Jump Street” is also the latest entry in the dreaded genre of movies that turn TV shows into comedies, which usually results in duds (“Starsky & Hutch” or “The Dukes of Hazzard.”) This one, though, works like gangbusters because it embraces its source material instead of spoofing it. The premise of the late-1980s series, which starred Johnny Depp as a member of a police unit posing undercover as high school students, was always a little ridiculous. The movie, which was written by Michael Bacall (“Project X,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and co-directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), simply takes the silliness inherent in the show and amps it up to delirious, affectionate heights (there are also lots of ingenious cameos that will delight the hardcore “Jump Street” fans).
Coming from the field of animation, Lord and Miller love visual humor and gags, and they inject several jokes into the movie (such as an illustration of the four stages of drug intoxication, or a long, risky car chase that pays off in spectacular fashion) that give the movie its breakneck pace. But the film’s secret weapon is the chemistry between Hill and Tatum, two actors who share an instant, easy rapport: You totally believe these guys have been friends for years.
One of the cleverest conceits in the movie is that once they’re back in school, the two guys swap their former teenage personas. Tatum is baffled that he’s become a geek who hangs out with the chemistry club, while Hill loves being the popular kid with the best house parties and the prettiest girls. By the time the prom rolls around, their adolescent angst and insecurities have returned with a vengeance.
“21 Jump Street” has lots of terrific supporting performances: Cube kills every scene he’s in with his profane, volcanic anger, and Dave Franco, younger brother of James, channels a hilarious, I’m-much-cooler-than-you swagger. But Hill and Tatum (who knew this actor could be so funny?) make you fall in love with this madcap, adorable movie.
“21 Jump Street” is silly and outrageous and relentlessly clever, and even though it goes a little slack in the final 10 minutes, the absolutely insane end credits more than make up for it. It may only be March, but I’m willing to bet we won’t see a funnier comedy this year.