At the beginning of 21 Jump Street, main characters Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), a pair of bumbling rookie cops, get reassigned to a unit of undercover officers who infiltrate high schools, with the explanation that it’s “a canceled program from the ’80s” that’s being revived because no one in law enforcement has any original ideas anymore. That obvious meta-insult at the movie itself, an action-comedy adapted from the 1987-91 TV cop drama, doesn’t make the premise any bolder or more creative, or compensate for the by-the-numbers plotting and stock characters. Acknowledging laziness isn’t an excuse for it.
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) do put in more effort than a comedic adaptation of a kitsch TV series necessarily warrants, and the film has a few amusing moments along the way to its predetermined outcome. Hill plays a variation on his typical insecure, awkward character, as a nerd who was picked on in high school and sees the assignment as a way to become a cool teenager all over again. Tatum, who comes off as wooden and distant in most of his dramatic roles, is well cast as a dumb jock who ends up discovering the wonders of nerddom, and the actor’s inherent lunkheadedness works well for the role.
But the plot, which involves Schmidt and Jenko tracking the source of a new drug while Schmidt falls in love with a fellow student (Brie Larson), is completely uninvolving, with half-hearted character arcs for Schmidt and Jenko as their friendship is tested. Lord and Miller get way too involved in staging a couple of elaborate car chases and shoot-outs, which only distract from the movie’s comedic strengths. Hill and Tatum play off each other nicely when they get to just casually banter, and there are funny supporting performances from Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell. The biggest laugh, though, comes from a cameo by a certain star of the original TV series, which is the best indication of the movie’s failure to distinguish itself as anything other than mediocre jokes built around recycled ideas.