21 Jump Street is self-aware. It knows that, for instance, co-star Channing Tatum looks like he’s “40 fucking years old” despite having to pass off as a high-school student. And it knows that it’s just another rehash in an avalanche of rehashes, as a police chief admits to his freshly minted underlings when he’s talking about resurrecting an undercover program from the ‘80s. “We’re completely out of ideas,” he says. “All we do is recycle shit from the past.”
Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and scripter Michael Bacall (sharing a story credit with co-star Jonah Hill) are the puppet masters behind the R-rated comedy’s self-awareness. (Yes, it’s a comedy. Forget what you saw in the decade of neon and big hair!) Hill and Tatum, former geek and cool kid, respectively, play the undercover cops assigned to “Jump Street,” a sorta-precinct run out of a dilapidated church by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) for young-looking (or, in their case, -acting) officers tasked with infiltrating schools to suss out drug dealers. Considering that there are about a dozen dick jokes in the film’s first five minutes, it’s likely that the name of Ice Cube’s character is supposed to be a pretty weak gag, too.
In fact, the entire movie seems to be based on dick jokes and cursing, both prevalent enough to rival Superbad (Hill’s filthily hilarious star-maker). For equal opportunity, there’s a “vagina” punch line, too. (Sigh, aren’t we tired of those yet? Somehow, “My mother is such a dick” is just funnier.) But this time, it’s too piled on (particularly Dickson’s unsoaped mouth) to be a genuine, albeit facile, source of comedy. Better lines come from supporting cast members such as SNL’s Chris Parnell, whose drama-coach character starts off an anecdote with, “I remember doing cocaine with Willie Nelson’s horse….” And Tatum’s frequent outbursts of “Fuck you, [RANDOM THING]!” only get a real laugh when his character spits out, “Fuck you, Glee!”, blaming the show for the “backward and unnatural” hierarchy of “cool” he and his partner find in modern-day high school, i.e. the environmentalists, theater nerds, and A-students ruling the hallways.
Overall, 21 Jump Street proceeds as you expect it to. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are teenage enemies who become best buds at the police academy and are designated brothers to carry out their mission of finding the person supplying synthetic drugs to high-school students. They both live at Schmidt’s house (cue overbearing mommy jokes) and mix up their identities and hence class schedules in front of the principal (cue fish-out-of-water jokes). While there, they make friends, grow crushes, and generally get in too deep. And it wouldn’t be an opposites-attract bromance if one of them didn’t get his feelings hurt by the other!
Because this is, after all, a story about cops, the film morphs into that weird action/comedy hybrid that goes all Pineapple Express at the end, i.e. a little too explicit on the violence. (Though one of the funnier jokes involves things that don’t blow up.) Unlike Pineapple Express, you feel a little weary by the time the credits roll after watching the stars try a lot too hard to win laughs, only a fraction of which really deliver. It’s likely that Hill’s shout-out on the story idea spurred him to put a little extra into his shtick — once more, with mugging! — but when you’re fucking with a classic, it takes more than a parade of penises to get it just right.