"I blame Glee,” grumbles one-time popular jock Jenko (Channing Tatum), who finds upon his undercover return to high school that up is down, right is wrong and tolerance is in.
“These crunchy granola dudes have convinced everyone they’re cool,” he adds, bemused, “and they’re not cool. It’s backwards, and unnatural, and it’s gotta be stopped.”
For all its pretensions to being just another stoner comedy in the Pineapple Express vein, 21 Jump Street just might be the smartest high-school movie Hollywood’s produced in a while, because it’s the first to really acknowledge that the rules have changed.
Written as it is by Scott Pilgrim Vs The World scribe Michael Bacall, it’s perhaps no surprise that this particular “teen” comedy has the intellectual edge over its genre peers, nor that it takes obvious pleasure in reversing the established power dynamic between jock and nerd.
Jenko and chubby Eminem-a-like Schmidt (Jonah Hill) were polar social opposites at school but later became BFFs at police academy.
One botched arrest too many gets them re-assigned to 21 Jump Street, an undercover operation for youthful-looking officers that’s based in a Korean church (of course) and headed up by an angry black police captain (Ice Cube) who solemnly tells them to “Embrace your stereotypes!”
But when they arrive back at school, posing as students with the aim of uncovering the source of a new drug, they discover that even the stereotypes have changed.
They weave through the student body on their first day, Jenko becoming increasingly bemused as he tries and fails to identify the various cliques.
You can’t blame him – the cool kid is nowadays more often than not the preppy hipster in the skinny jeans and thick-rimmed nerd glasses or, in this instance, the weedy eco warrior-cum-drug dealer (Dave Franco).
As Schmidt gleefully discovers, comic books, environmental awareness and general tolerance are top of the cool list in this brave new social world.
Despite the film’s ’80s TV roots, one of co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s smartest moves is to avoid wallowing in nostalgia for their small-screen source material, particularly given that the show is best known both for launching Johnny Depp with the teen-idol label he spent the majority of his career trying to shake off and, um, being a bit rubbish.
There’s no assumption here that the viewer has seen or even heard of the series, but those who have are thrown the odd bone – most notably in the form of Depp’s outlandish third-act cameo.
So, instead of tired callbacks or obligatory in-jokes, Bacall’s script is laced with moments of sharp, surreal hilarity, delivered by and large with a kind of self-effacing efficiency that at its best recalls Edgar Wright’s faultless handle on Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.
The sequence that sees Schmidt and Jenko tripping during a conversation with a school security guard is a pure bizarre pleasure – look out for the eyebrows moment, possibly the film’s crowning achievement.
There’s some quality comedy mileage to be had from Schmidt’s overly sentimental parents, too: “It looks like I died in a car crash and you guys haven’t moved on yet,” Hill mutters upon entering their photo-laden living room.
The film’s humour isn’t consistently so well-judged, and there are two running gags – one involving exploding cars, the other a one-note teacher with the hots for Jenko (Ellie Kemper) – that long outstay their welcome.
And as is ever the case with action parody, there’s a point in the third act where the directors give in to the genre conventions they’re mocking and indulge in an overlong car-chase’n’gunfights sequence that feels at once perfunctory and overblown.
But Hill and Tatum are both so profoundly likeable in their distinctive ways, and the device of their switching social roles is mined to such genuinely funny and fresh ends, that you forgive these excesses.
Everything about Schmidt’s plotline, which sees him fall in with the drama nerds and star in a production of Peter Pan, is gold, up to and including his appealingly low-key dynamic with love interest Molly (Brie Larson – rock star Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim).
Meanwhile Jenko’s occasionally touching arc has shades of James Franco’s in Paul Feig’s late, great TV series Freaks And Geeks – relegated to the ranks of the science nerds, he gradually discovers that he might have more in common with them than he thought.
If nothing else, Tatum can add “rapping adorably about potassium nitrate” to his ever-expanding list of screen skills.
21 Jump Street’s meta credentials are acknowledged and established early on, with Nick Offerman’s police chief explaining that the undercover operation is being revived because the guys in charge just “recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice”.
Most of the people who write high-school movies are, like these deceptively youthful looking undercover cops, trying to regain entry into a world they haven’t been part of in years and don’t really understand any more.
But Bacall, Lord and Miller, by taking the time to consider what modern-day high school actually looks like, have against all the odds produced a remake that does something genuinely new. Extras include 30 minutes of deleted/extended scenes actually worth your time, loads of behind-the-scenes bromancing and Ice Cube swearing. A lot.