DIRECTED BY PHIL LORD AND CHRIS MILLER
To suggest that 21 Jump Street directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord have delivered one of Hollywood’s best reboots perhaps isn’t saying a great deal. Reboots, after all, are often insipid affairs, specifically designed to turn creative bankruptcy into healthy box office takings by reviving exhausted properties and plundering them anew. But in their first live-action venture, the co-helmers of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs have achieved the rarest of feats—a reboot that feels genuinely inspired.
Rather than pander to the fanbase of a widely beloved franchise, 21 Jump Street borrows the preposterous premise of a pop-culture relic and seizes its untapped comic potential. The original series was a Reagan-era hit for a fledgling Fox network, but is best remembered for casting Johnny Depp as a baby-faced narc tasked with cracking down on high school crime. This time it’s Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum who’re asked to head back to class, or to “teenage the fuck up” in the words of the perpetually irate Captain Dickson (a highly quotable Ice Cube).
Dickson heads what the department’s deputy chief cheekily explains is a “cancelled undercover police program from the ’80s,” re-initiated because his bosses “lack creativity.” “All they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect nobody to notice,” he observes in a moment of meta-wit that sets the table for the slyly subversive absurdities to follow.
Hill and Tatum play officers Schmidt and Jenko, first introduced as actual high school seniors at opposite poles of the popularity spectrum. (Schmidt’s a hapless dweeb, Jenko’s a bullying jock.) The pair are later reunited as rookie police recruits, and reconcile their differences in order to help one another survive basic training. True to bumbling buddy cop form, however, their first arrest goes amusingly awry, and the duo are transferred to Dickson’s titular operation, where their new assignment is to infiltrate the supply chain of a high school drug ring.
Jenko is considerably more jazzed at this prospect than his partner, but quickly discovers that the scholastic social hierarchy isn’t what it used to be. (Tolerance and environmentalism are in, titty twisters and gas-guzzling muscle cars less so.) And the tables are well and truly turned when the two inadvertently swap aliases, leaving it up to Hill’s Schmidt to curry favour with the cool kids who can lead them to the dope.
Predictably enough, plenty of hard-R hijinks ensue, and Hill scores big laughs in a role that recalls his breakout turn in 2007′s Superbad. The bigger surprise is the comic chemistry Hill shares with Tatum, who, rather frustratingly, appears to have a sense of humour to match his walking-Abercrombie-ad physique. Meanwhile, screenwriter Michael Bacall (who developed the story with Hill) demonstrates the same knack for knowing self-referentiality and charming awkwardness that he brought to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
These elements, along with the energetic direction of Miller and Lord, amount to a joyously offbeat film that cleverly skewers tired retreads. Ironically, Columbia Pictures’ reaction to positive early buzz has been to hastily greenlight a sequel. On this evidence, though, that’s one shameless cash grab we might actually be able to get behind.