21 Jump Street is self-aware. It knows that, for instance, co-star Channing Tatum looks like he’s “40 fucking years old” despite having to pass off as a high-school student. And it knows that it’s just another rehash in an avalanche of rehashes, as a police chief admits to his freshly minted underlings when he’s talking about resurrecting an undercover program from the ’80s. “We’re completely out of ideas,” he says. “All we do is recycle shit from the past.”
Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and scripter Michael Bacall (sharing a story credit with co-star Jonah Hill) are the puppet masters behind the R-rated comedy’s metacommentary. (Yes, it’s a comedy, not a drama like the original television procedural. Forget what you saw in the decade of neon and big hair!) Hill and Tatum play the undercover cops (former geek and cool kid, respectively) assigned to Jump Street, a sorta-precinct run out of a dilapidated church by Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) for young-looking (or, in their case, -acting) officers tasked with infiltrating schools to suss out drug dealers. Considering that there are about a dozen phallic jokes in the film’s first five minutes, it’s likely that the name of Ice Cube’s character is supposed to be a pretty weak gag, too.
In fact, the entire movie seems to center on penis gags and profanity, maybe even moreso than Superbad, Hill’s filthily hilarious breakthrough film. (For equal opportunity, there’s a “vagina” punchline, too. But somehow, “My mother is such a dick” is just funnier.) Some of the crudeness might have worked, but here, it’s just too piled on to succeed as a genuine (if facile) source of laughs. Better lines come from supporting cast members like SNL alum Chris Parnell, whose drama-coach character starts off an anecdote with, “I remember doing cocaine with Willie Nelson’s horse....” And Tatum’s frequent outbursts of “Fuck you, [RANDOM THING]!” only get a real laugh when his character spits out, “Fuck you, Glee!” and blames the show for the “backward and unnatural” hierarchy of “cool” he and his partner must navigate in a modern-day high school.
Overall, 21 Jump Street proceeds as you expect it to. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are teenage enemies who become best buds at the police academy. Now, their mission is to find the perp supplying synthetic drugs to high-school students. They both live at Schmidt’s house (cue overbearing mommy jokes) and mix up their identities and hence class schedules in front of the principal (cue fish-out-of-water jokes). While there, they make friends, grow crushes, and generally get in too deep. And it wouldn’t be an opposites-attract bromance if one of them didn’t get his feelings hurt by the other!
Because this is, after all, a story about cops, the film morphs into the kind of weirdly graphic action/comedy hybrid we can thank Pineapple Express for. (Though one of the funnier jokes involves things that don’t blow up.) Unlike Pineapple Express, you feel a little weary by the time the credits roll, mostly from watching the stars try way too hard and largely fail to deliver laughs. When you’re fucking with a classic, it takes more than a parade of penises to get it just right.