'21 Jump Street': A Winking Good Time
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Embrace your stereotype!" That's the terse instruction Ice Cube's Capt. Dickson barks to Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) soon after they arrive at a Korean church that's a front for what another character admits is a most unoriginal undercover police operation. The movie reboot of the quasi-iconic/definitively cheesy young-cop TV series "21 Jump Street" is hyper-aware of what a bad idea it sounds like, which is one reason the filmmakers opted to make it a hyper-self-conscious comedic send-up of the series. One reason the movie doesn't go full "Airplane!" is that one of its themes is the impossibility of doing a sincere reboot of "21 Jump Street," and the slight rue everyone involves feels about this state of affairs.
But, my oh my, I'm already making it sound too highbrow. Fear not: The movie is replete with shots of the hunky Tatum mock-humping perps before cuffing them, exchanges in which Hill makes nearly as many petulant penis jokes as he did in "Superbad," and a running stream of gags and situations that hammer home just how coarse and territorial (but still lovable, sort of!) even the most "politically correct" contemporary high school students act. Whoo-hoo!
The movie opens in a high school class where Schmidt and Jenko are, of course, natural enemies. This of course means that they'll be partnered up when they graduate police academy. The minor twist is that in their young adulthood they've managed to befriend each other. Getting assigned the "Jump Street" detail, which has them posing as high school students to blow the lid off a designer drug ring, reignites their negative high school dynamic. Can their buddydom survive the assignment?
This is not an entirely crucial question. For the most part, the movie is concerned with relentlessly lampooning every genre convention that its makers clearly grew up buying. Which makes the sending up both knowing and affectionate, but no less relentless. (Particularly well-turned is a "when are things going to start blowing up?" joke.) As for the buddy dynamic, it's funny to see the way the grown-up (sort of) Jenko and Schmidt react to and negotiate the politics of the new (faux) tolerant-of-diversity ethos back at their old school, but their comic energy is largely reserved for less observational humor and more where-are-you-guys-touching-each-other-now? routines, as when they're both forced to ingest the designer drug they're investigating, and subsequently attempt to purge by sticking their fingers down each other's throats.
The film is stuffed with lowbrow meta stylings, best exemplified by the appearance of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" on the soundtrack. Get it? Here's a song that made millions of white kids pretend to be gangsta, but, look, Ice Cube is actually in this movie; get it? They reach an absurd peak at the end with a (semi-spoiler alert!) cameo appearance that really puts a lot in perspective. Not everything in "21 Jump Street" works, and if you're actually looking for a consequential night at the movies you might want to stay away, but for a goofy fun Friday night this gets the job done.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.