- - Thursday, March 15, 2012

No one asked for it. But it’s here anyway.

“21 Jump Street,” a remake of the late-1980s cop drama that helped make Johnny Depp a star, has arrived in theaters. It’s no longer a drama, and it no longer stars Johnny Depp. Instead, it’s a vulgar buddy-cop comedy starring funnyman Jonah Hill and square-jawed beefcake Channing Tatum.

And it’s a riot — funny and engaging and even kind of sweet, in a gross-out guy-humor way.

Part of the delight is the sheer surprise it turned out so well. There’s no reason for the movie to be this good. On paper, it looks like a pro-forma Hollywood joke machine built out of the ashes (and name recognition) of an old TV series.

Mr. Hill plays Schmidt, a geeky high school kid turned geeky cop. In his school days, he suffered bullying from the resident jock, Jenko (Mr. Tatum). When both head to the local police academy, however, they decide it’s in their best interests to buddy up, relying on Schmidt’s brains and Jenko’s brawn to make the grade.

Soon both are transferred into a small undercover unit — the Jump Street division. Under the command of the amusingly surly Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube, who gets many of the movie’s best punch lines), the division sends especially young-looking officers into high school to ferret out youth crime. Before long, the two cops are on the case, living with Schmidt’s parents while investigating a drug ring operating out of the school.

All this happens in the first few minutes, and it’s little more than a pretext for sending Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum back to high school in order to riff on the horrors and glories of adolescent education.

To some extent, that means reliving the worst parts of the high school experience: the popularity contests, the pop quizzes and the parental authoritarianism.

But in one of the movie’s cleverest moves, it sets up a contrast between the social hierarchies that dominated high school when Schmidt and Jenko first went to school and the radically altered landscape that exists now. No longer are the meatheads at the top of the social order: The geeky Schmidt falls in with the environmentally conscious cool kids, while Jenko has his first taste of unpopularity.

The relationship between the two is surprisingly sweet and ensures that the movie’s occasionally over-the-top vulgarity never becomes needlessly crude.

Mr. Hill always has had a knack for playing reticent child-men, and he remains likable in a highly familiar role. But Mr. Tatum holds his own. An actor who frequently seems cast as much for his chiseled abs and jawline as for any abilities as a thespian, Mr. Tatum proves charmingly and endearingly puppylike — often confused by the unfamiliar state of affairs at the school but largely unruffled. His dumb enthusiasm propels many of the movie’s funniest scenes.

There are a lot of surprises in “21 Jump Street,” but the biggest is that it works at all. A movie no one demanded turns out to be one lots of people should want to see.


TITLE: “21 Jump Street”

CREDITS: Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Screenplay by Michael Bacall, story by Mr. Bacall and Jonah Hill.

RATING: R for drug use, sexual innuendo and foul language

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes


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