"The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what we do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope nobody notices."
Clever, right? The biggest problem with 21 Jump Street is that it's too clever, or at least thinks it is, and calls attention to it every couple of minutes. It's actually a very funny movie, but by constantly calling attention to how meta and in-on-the-joke everyone is, it deflates its purpose. It's better than it has any right to be, but it's almost sad that it could have been better. It could have been one of the best movies of the year, but it ultimately tries too hard to be a good movie instead of just allowing it to happen, which it almost certainly would have.
Jonah Hill & Channing Tatum play Schmidt & Jenko, a respectively nerdy & meatheaded cop who are given an assignment to help revive an old undercover program that sends youthful looking cops to high school to bust up drug rings. They mix up their assignments, however, and the dumb Jenko ends up having to masquerade as a science geek & nerdy Schmidt is stuck pretending he's a jock. It also helps that in the years since these two were actually in high school, the social constructs have changed so that the dumb jock is no longer at the top of the food chain. This sends Jenko scrambling to find an identity, but helps Schmidt to actually enjoy high school in a way he didn't when he was a student.
Like I said, it's clever enough as a concept, it doesn't need to make you aware of how clever it is by constantly having characters mention these facts. Schmidt falls in with the popular crowd, which includes the school's main drug dealer Eric (Dave Franco, younger brother of James) and drama chick Molly (Brie Larson) whom he ends up falling for. Schmidt becomes so enamored with his newfound popularity, that he begins to get in too deep and lose sight of what their actual mission is in the first place.
While Hill is the focus of most of the drama, its Tatum who actually shines in the film. I mean this as a sincere compliment, but Channing Tatum actually has the ability to be the next Mark Wahlberg. He's at home in comedy & drama, and he's a much better actor than he appears to be, giving him the ability to constantly surprise you and catch you off guard. I hadn't been impressed with him at all until Magic Mike earlier this summer, and catching up with this film now, I think he's got a bright future ahead of him. I never, in a million years, thought I would utter anything of the sort.
The supporting cast is strong, with Franco & Larson both playing their roles extremely well, and it helps that the teachers are all played by actors with serious comedy chops like Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper & Rob Riggle (who steals the two or three scenes he's in). Nick Offerman is also hilarious in a cameo as their first Chief, and it wouldn't be 21 Jump Street without cameos from Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, in a hilariously touching scene late in the film.
Under the direction of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, it's a solid comedy top to bottom. The two are veterans of tv comedy from How I Met Your Mother, and their earlier directorial effort was another one that was better than it had any right to be, 2009's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The screenplay was by Michael Bacall who previously wrote Scott Pilgrim vs The World, one of my favorite films in recent years, based on a story by Bacall & Hill. It could have been a truly great screenplay had it not been so concerned with making sure that the audience was in on the joke. It's almost as if they didn't trust the audience, and while I get that, considering the film was aimed squarely at teenagers, but it ends up undermining its brilliance with constant asides.
21 Jump Street is hardly a classic, but it's much better than it could have or even should have been. Even if you like the film a lot, you'll likely find yourself with the same complaints that I have, or maybe not. Maybe the film works 100% for some people, and I get that. I guess I just wish the writers hadn't been so concerned with leaving the audience behind and just going for broke. But at the end of the day, at least they tried, and that's more than I can say for 95% of tv to film adaptations.