More than 20 years after the show ran its course, 21 Jump Street is best remembered for launching the career of Johnny Depp and for giving the fledgling Fox network a much-needed buzzed-about show.
But there won't be much buzz about the film adaptation, a scattershot comedy that wastes a strong opening set-up for a series of lightweight gags and padded action sequences.
TV has a wealth of classic programming ripe for parody on the big screen and 21 Jump Street, the deadly serious 1980s TV drama about undercover cops in high school, is worthy of deflating, though no one necessarily wanted such a film. But this time the joke is on the spoof, which strikes its target with blunt, conventional jokes that draw little blood.
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The film stars an increasingly thinner Jonah Hill and a surprisingly comedic Channing Tatum. Hill plays Schmidt, a poor man's Eminem in high school, and a brainiac with no self-confidence. Tatum is Jenko, a handsome jock in high school who struggles with anything requiring brain over brawn. Years later the pair are mismatched cops whose partnership grows into friendship: Schmidt helping Jenko with the mental challenges of the job -- knowing the Miranda rights in full and not an abbreviated version -- and the bulky Jenko aiding Schmidt with the physical rigors of being a cop. The bungling pair are assigned to a local park as bike cops, where things quickly deteriorate in a series of laugh-out-loud jokes that serve as the film's high point.
But 21 Jump Street inexplicably loses its comedic mojo shortly after it shifts into full parody mode, as Schmidt and Jenko are recruited as undercover officers in a local high school to ferret out a dangerous new drug. Once brimming with potential, 21 Jump Street deflates as Schmidt and Jenko try to blend in as high school students. Through a mix-up, Schmidt is mistaken for the jock and Jenko the brain, thus foisting standard fish-out-of-water jokes on us for the duration of the movie. Schmidt crushes hard on a sweet 18-year-old senior named Molly (Brie Larson) -- given that he's several years out of high school, the romance is actually pretty creepy -- while Jenko bonds with a trio of nerds in his chemistry class. Naturally, Molly and the nerds will factor into the film's plot, as Schmidt and Jenko attempt to find the drug supplier. To get to him, they befriend the school's dealer, Eric Molson (Dave Franco, younger brother of James), an environmentally conscious student.
None of this makes much sense, and by comedy standards it shouldn't have to. But the payoff should come in laughs, and this is a bust.
Some of the brighter moments include any scenes with Ice Cube as the belligerent stereotypical sergeant who also deals in stereotypes, while Ellie Kemper (Bridesmaids, The Office) as Jenko's chemistry teacher who is smitten with her student, and Rob Riggle who plays an excitable coach, liven the film in small doses. And yes, there are cameos by 21 Jump Street TV series alums -- sometimes funny, sometimes pointless.
The biggest problem with 21 Jump Street is its lack of consistency. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who teamed up on the engaging animated tale Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in 2009, don't fare too well in their live-action debut. Given the broad drama of the series, their movie should be full of big ideas, and instead settles for redundant gags involving drugs, guns, and high school cliques.
21 JUMP STREET
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Screenplay by Michael Bacall, based on the television show. A Columbia Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for vulgar language, sexual situations, violence, drug use, and adult themes. Running time: 109 minutes.
Critic's rating: **
Schmidt ........... Jonah Hill
Jenko .......... Channing Tatum
Eric Molson .......... Dave Franco
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.