Why make a movie based on a lame '80s TV show remembered mainly for giving Johnny Depp his first starring role? 21 Jump Street doesn't answer that question directly, but it comes awfully close. In an introductory scene, a police captain explains that he's reassigning two bumbling rookie cops (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) to an undercover squad working in a local high school in hopes of improving the squad's performance. "They recycle shit from the past and expect us not to notice," he says. The line goes by quickly but the reference is clear: Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are well aware that bad television is not the ideal source for a good film. They're confident enough to make fun of the movie's humble beginnings because they know they're about to beat the odds.
Shot last year in New Orleans, 21 Jump Street is far smarter and more engaging than it has any right to be. It's virtually guaranteed to become the first authentic hit movie of 2012. So assured is this film of its own success, it finds a way to announce the premise of the first sequel before the credits roll. And it's serving as the main attraction at this week's SXSW Film festival in Austin, Texas, an event not known as a safe harbor for mindless entertainment.
Make no mistake — this is not highbrow stuff. If you got a dime for every penis joke in this movie, you could take the whole family out for dinner afterwards. But just as the best children's movies manage to sneak in some substance for the adults, 21 Jump Street functions pretty well on a number of levels. The main idea behind sending two cops in their mid-20s back to high school is to suggest we grown-ups may not have come as far as we think. Everything at school has changed, but old issues and insecurities come roaring back with renewed vigor. Somehow 21 Jump Street makes this work easily alongside car chases and frat-boy humor. Having your cake and eating it too may not be the ultimate success for a mainstream movie, but it sure beats a whole bunch of lesser alternatives.
Directors Lord and Miller pack their movie full of one-liners and sight gags like it was designed for repeat viewings. They maintain a playful tone by not taking themselves too seriously, or worrying much about making significant mistakes. Proof can be found in an uncredited cameo by none other than Depp. Without spoiling the surprise, Depp's scene is just weird enough to be unsettling. It's a far cry from the self-aggrandizing star turns often found in films like this. And it's a fitting moment for a movie that seems to find its calling in defying expectations. We'll take that over bad TV anytime. — KEN KORMAN
21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube