*** (out of four)
Part action movie spoof, part coming-of-age comedy and mostly hilarious, “21 Jump Street” gives the genre of “unexpected remakes of not especially significant ’80s TV shows” a good name.
The cop drama that helped turn Johnny Depp into a heartthrob returns as a lightweight buddy movie, in which Channing Tatum’s Jenko is the street smart partner to Jonah Hill’s book smart Schmidt. Those specialties don’t get them very far when the young cops return to high school and accidentally mix up their new identities. It lands Jenko in the AP classes meant for Schmidt, who poses as Jenko’s brother and participates in track and theater, where he quickly warms to a girl (Brie Larson) who pays him more attention than any member of the fairer sex did when Schmidt was a high school outcast.
That role reversal is the best decision writer Michael Bacall (“Project X”), who shares a story credit with Hill, makes in updating “21 Jump Street.” It pushes both actors out of their comfort zones as Tatum reveals the insecurity that emerges when a former big man on campus becomes an outsider, and Hill embraces the in crowd but can’t suppress the wounded 18-year-old inside.
Lest you think “21 Jump Street” represents some complicated, insightful portrait of teen life, keep in mind that Jenko and Schmidt’s mission is to uncover a drug operation. That, of course, results in them taking the very item they’re trying to stop and hallucinating until a gym teacher’s (Rob Riggle) head turns into an ice cream cone. Tatum’s a better comic actor than he gets credit for, and he surely gives his all while Jenko, mid-drug freakout, jumps through a gong.
“21 Jump Street” can’t resist a few too many dick jokes and its central plotline serves largely as a delivery system for rapid-fire, Judd Apatow-style humor that should take a breath and self-edit once in a while. Yet the movie’s a consistent riot with a unique view of high school in 2012. Theater and environmentalism are cool and cruel, macho posturing is a thing of the past. It’s almost enough to make you want to go back. Almost.
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