From the beginning, a “21 Jump Street” movie was a collective groan of a concept.
Beloved by a generation of teens who didn’t know any better, the 1980s show was probably one Johnny Depp casting call away from being quickly canceled and forgotten. As far as unnecessary remakes go, you could make a stronger argument for “BJ and the Bear.”
The filmmakers seemed to feel the same way, and their open disdain for conventions liberates the movie. This is a consistently funny film, which is good. But the true achievement is that it occasionally feels original.
“21 Jump Street,” for anyone whose parents would only let them watch PBS from 1987-91, was a Fox network TV show about a group of young-looking cops who infiltrated high school crime rings. With a talented and memorably pretty cast including Depp and Holly Robinson, it was easy to look past the repetitive storylines and overload of sincerity.
The “21 Jump Street” movie takes the name and the part about the high schools, and then mocks pretty much everything else -- with plenty of success. If writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill watched the show, they never took it seriously. You can almost see them on a couch in college, smoking dope and laughing about the fact that co-star Dustin Nguyen was registering for high school when he looked 35 years old.
The cops here are strapping Jenko (Channing Tatum) and dorky smart guy Schmidt (Jonah Hill). Rivals in high school, they develop a nice chemistry in police academy and get recruited to the Jump Street program. From there, comedy takes precedent over story cohesion, in the tradition of other recommendable narrative messes including “Pineapple Express” and “Anchorman.”
Phil Lord and Chris Miller approach the film more like camp counselors than filmmakers, directing “21 Jump Street” as if they were paid by the tangent and non-sequitor. For 10 minutes or so, the movie is a pretty good satire of sanctimonious teens in 2012. (Jenko is ostracized for his muscle car’s bad mileage; the cool kids have cars that run on French fry oil.) Other scenes take aim at the slow motion doves in John Woo movies, and the kinds of vehicles that explode in car chases. Why is there a biker gang in this film? Why not?
Tatum will get plenty of credit for holding his own with the comedy; every one of his scenes with a deputized trio of chemistry nerds is excellent. But screenwriter Bacall is the secret weapon here. He also had a hand in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and you get the impression that with a little bit of free rein, he could make anything funny. A “T.J. Hooker” remake? “Hello Larry: The Movie.” If Bacall is attached, I’ll give it a shot.
This film is even better if you come in with no spoilers and low expectations, so we will build it up no more. Know that it earns its R rating, mostly because of language and violence. And staying as cryptic as possible, we offer the following advice for fans of the original “21 Jump Street”: Make sure you take your bathroom break before the prom starts.