WASHINGTON – It was an odd choice for a remake — a 1980s TV series about a group of young, undercover cops specializing in youth crimes. But Hollywood must have figured, if “21 Jump Street” (1987-1991) can launch the career of Johnny Depp, it may just work for Jonah Hill (“Superbad”) and Channing Tatum (“Step Up”).
Hill plays Schmidt, a not-so-slim Slim Shady who’s picked on by Tatum’s letterman-clad jock Jenko. After graduation, they become “buddy cops” and join the ranks of a special task force at 21 Jump Street. Brash leader Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube) assigns them to break up a synthetic drug ring at a local high school, sending them in as undercover high school students.
I appreciate the film’s commentary on today’s high schoolers, full of cellphones and political correctness. In this new environment, the once-dorky Schmidt has more success with the ladies, while the once-cool Jenko fits in with the dorks. In real life, Hill and Tatum fit right in with this crowd. They do sophomoric well, with Hill reminding us of his comedic chops while donning a Peter Pan suit, and Tatum overcoming a past of mediocre rom coms to play an effective meathead.
Adam Sandler was 30 when he went “back to school” as “Billy Madison” (1995). Tatum is 31, having turned 18 the year before “American Pie” (1999), and Hill is 28, having turned 18 the year of “American Pie 2″ (2001). This is the demographic “Jump Street” is going for with its constant “vagina” monologues in, you guessed it, the year of “American Reunion” (2012).
While “Pie” introduced new things to our pop culture (namely the term “MILF”), “Jump Street” offers mostly rehash, from the set pieces (high school parties) to the comic situations (characters tripping on drugs). I suppose some things never change. High school will always be high school. But watching Jonah Hill bust high schoolers after “Superbad” (2007) is like watching Vince Vaughn as a cop busting wedding crashers or Will Ferrell as a cop breaking up frat parties. Sure, there will be laugh-out-loud moments, but when they print the Film History Yearbook, the class clown superlative always goes to the original. Here, it’s a photo of Hill “booping” Michael Cera on the nose.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some genuine belly laughs, like Tatum botching the Miranda Rights as “You have the right to become an attorney.” There also are some clever spoofs of the action/comedy genre, including a series of dud explosions or a climatic montage interrupted by mundane yard work. As Hill and Tatum manned dual pedals of a driver’s ed car, I fastened my seat belt for the ensuing hilarity. Unfortunately, it fell short of the driver’s ed scene from “The Naked Gun” (1988).
“21 Jump Street” is full of pop culture references, but it doesn’t know when to quit. A trio of “Rain Man” nods is great, but any script that feels the need to reference “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” needs to re-examine itself. The best references are to the “Jump Street” TV series itself, including a string of show-stealing cameos. This saves the movie for fans of the original series and surprises those who have no idea what it was. Referencing, remaking, rebooting. That’s what this one’s all about.
As the movie itself admits, “It’s all about recycling from the past and expecting everyone not to notice.”