It’s funny-strange when cultural properties like 21 Jump Street are remade with the same titles, characters, and premises but as parodies of their former selves. On one hand, who would want a straight remake of, say, The Brady Bunch, which presented to a ferociously polarized country at the height of sixties counterculture the sugary vision of an apolitical, pure-blood, suburban California never-never land? We needed a corrective. On the other hand, what does it say that the people who created the show — and were onboard with the movie — had so little invested in their utopian vision that they happily let it be travestied? And while we’re on the subject, what of Tim Burton’s upcoming Dark Shadows, which (as a Gothic horror–Barnabas freak from way back) I’ve looked forward to as no other movie this millennium, but turns out (on the basis of its ) to be a cartoonish Addams Family–style send-up rather than something akin to Burton’s terrific, Grand Guignol Hammer homage Sleepy Hollow? Even those of us who routinely cringed when Jonathan Frid fluffed his lines and tried not to notice wobbling and collapsing scenery will probably still feel as if our imaginative lives are being violated.
It’s in this context that the new big-screen 21 Jump Street is not half-bad. It isn’t a straight, serious remake of the eighties Fox TV series but it’s also not a spoof, despite some broad jabs at the old settings and characters. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Mitchell (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) borrow the premise for something different: a comic fantasy about going back and reliving one’s high school years (which did a number on us all).
I don’t know how many people feel loyalty to the old show, in which Johnny Depp played a baby-faced cop who couldn’t get taken seriously on the streets and was shifted to an undercover high-school unit operating out of an old church (at 21 Jump Street). Probably not a lot. The show had a gritty, we’re-so-frank vibe (the Fox network was brand new and looking to distinguish itself from the Big Three) but the scripts tended to be painfully earnest (and clunky) and Depp was only half-formed, groping his way toward a standard Method juvenile career before his swerve into late-Brando-style weirdness.
In the movie, tubby Jonah Hill and hunky Channing Tatum are rookie cops who’d once been in the same high-school class — but in polar-opposite social classes. After a bad, slapstick basic-training first act, the movie settles down and becomes oddly compelling. The new partners are ordered (by a screaming Ice Cube, whose motto is, “Embrace your stereotype!”) to impersonate high-school students to trace the origin of a designer drug that’s wacking kids out. (One teen even kills himself, which isn’t a particularly zany springboard for a comedy.) Bizarrely, they move in with Hill’s parents, setting the stage for a dreamlike, time-travel vibe in which everything looks almost the same but nothing remotely is. In the few years since they graduated the zeitgeist has changed: What was square is now hip, what was hip is square, and no one is square enough to use words like "hip" or "square." Bullying is not cool, phat, or dope. Everyone’s gone green.
The film’s most ingenious twist is the mix-up of the hapless pairs’ aliases, whereby Hill finds himself paired with the popular kids — on the track team, starring in a musical, and in a heavy flirtation with cutie Brie Larson. Tatum, whose eyes glaze over when he opens a book, is now surrounded by science nerds. The fun is watching each of them, after multiple rocky starts, rise to the occasion and become rather Zenlike, with halting Hill finding his inner smoothie and dim Tatum some intellectual resources — among them learning how to tap cell phones. It’s as if the characters from The Breakfast Club joined forces and then filled in for the Mission: Impossible team.
I don’t know where Hill is going as an actor — like Depp on the original show, he’s still unformed — but he has high energy and crack timing. You can’t dislike someone so eager to please. Tatum, who has always struck me as one of our more egregiously empty-headed juveniles, finds his wits onscreen: You see the wheels begin to turn, first very, very slowly, then at a surprising clip. The best scenes feature an anti-bullying environmentalist drug dealer played by Dave Franco, who’s like a cross between his weirdo brother James and fifties Method neurotics like Montgomery Clift.
21 Jump Street is an agreeable shambles until its last fifteen minutes, when it’s not so agreeable anymore. The splattery shoot-outs are supposed to be great fun but are staged with neither wit nor bravura — this is the sort of movie where cops bring down bad guys in slow motion and then high-five each other. The worst thing is a belabored gonzo joke at the expense of the TV show that would need to be a lot funnier than it is to earn its disrespect. The new 21 Jump Street doesn’t have to worship at the altar of its predecessor, but it could send it off with a little more class.