21 Jump Street is cocky as hell. Usually, when a movie clearly lays out a set-up for an eventual payoff, we groan, lament the story’s predictability, and all the impact is diminished because we saw the hit coming. 21 Jump Street comes up to the line of turning directly to the camera and saying, “This will come back later,” and the joke still manages to hit like a sucker punch. The set-up-pay-off humor is just one weapon in the film’s arsenal. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller effortlessly move between the cartoonish, the absurd, the darkly comic, the vulgar, and almost every time the jokes absolutely kill. But the excellent lead performances from Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum elevate the film from a raucous comedy, and they make 21 Jump Street not just a film where two bike cops mime having sex with an apprehended perp. It’s a film with a heart, a soul, and two bike cops miming having sex with an apprehended perp.
In 2005, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) were at opposite ends of the social spectrum in high school. Schmidt was the shy nerd and Jenko was the dumb jock. Seven years later, they meet up again at the police academy where they discover that they can make-up for each other’s shortcomings—Jenko helps Schmidt physically, Schmidt helps Jenko intellectually. After they botch the arrest with the aforementioned mime-fucked perp by failing to properly read him his Miranda rights (because I guess the case would have been open-and-shut otherwise), the two are reassigned to work on an undercover unit stationed at the “Aroma of Christ” Korean Church on 21 Jump Street. Jenko and Schmidt’s mission is to go undercover as high school students, and find the supplier of a new synthetic drug. The cops are assigned fake identities that would have them basically reprising who they were seven years ago, but a mix-up sets Schmidt with the cool kids, Jenko with the nerds, and the two get to see how the other half lived.
You don’t have to be well-versed in 21 Jump Street mythology to enjoy the film. There is only one scene that will have a payoff if you’re even passingly familiar with the original 1987 TV series. To enjoy the film, you just need the ability to laugh at things that are funny. The movie is a masterful comic collage where every element works perfectly to have you doubling over in laughter pains. A prime example is when we see the stages of the synthetic drug. The first four stages are “Giggles”, “Tripping Balls”, “Insane Over-Confidence”, and “Holy Motherfucking Shit” (stage five is either “Asleepyness” or death). We know these stages are coming because Jenko and Schimdt watch a video of a victim (Johnny Simmons) who OD’d on the drug. When Jenko and Schmidt are forced to take the drug in front of the school’s skeptical dealer (Dave Franco), we shouldn’t be surprised to see the undercover cops reenacting these effects, and yet the sequence is absolutely phenomenal. Lord and Miller perfectly capture the warped mental state of our heroes, and Hill and Tatum manage to differentiate their performances even though the characters are having the same reactions to the drug. During the “Insane Over-Confidence” phase, the camera switches between Jenko believing he’s a chemistry genius (“Fuck you, science!” he proclaims after thinking he’s written out a brilliant formula in front of his AP Chemistry class), and Schmidt breaking out of his shell for a perfect rendition of “I’ve Gotta Crow.” These delightfully bizarre and manic moments of comic energy run throughout 21 Jump Street.
I’ve never been impressed by Tatum until now, and it may be a discredit to his previous films for not bringing out the charisma, energy, and overall talent he shows here. His role in 21 Jump Street pushes him far beyond the safe zone of “funny dumb guy” to where he has to throw himself into the slapstick, the one-liners, the absurd moments, and basically keep pace with everything the film is trying to do. As for Hill, his performance is as staggeringly funny as one would expect from a comic actor of his caliber. He provides the throwaway one-liners that people will be quoting for years to come, and has the cutting asides that audiences may have missed the first time because they were laughing so hard.
But what makes 21 Jump Street special isn’t just the talent of everyone involved or how they excel at a variety of comic styles. It’s the thoughtful and emotional friendship story at the center. Rather than shove another “bromance” down our throats, 21 Jump Street makes the characters wrestle with what they did and didn’t have in high school. These characters arcs require more than comic timing and delivery. They require real performances, and the movie is unafraid to show Jenko and Schmidt being upset or vulnerable. But none of it is saccharine or forced. Characters don’t scream about how they feel. The actors convey it, their chemistry sells it, we understand it, and then the film quickly moves on to Jonah Hill, dressed in a Peter Pan costume, going on a high-speed getaway from a biker gang.
21 Jump Street is film comedy in its finest form. The movie is comfortable being weird, it uses vulgarity but never as a crutch, it gives every actor a chance to shine, and it all works so well that you barely stop to consider that Schmidt’s love-interest is a high-schooler (Brie Larson). The movie is good-natured but unapologetic in trying to make the audience laugh as hard as possible for as long as possible. And there’s no need to apologize when you try, and then succeed, conquer, crush, stand victorious over the bodies of your enemies, and scream out their Miranda rights.