The entertainment industry’s obsession with self-cannibalism has reached terrifying levels, and we’re not just talking about its continuing troubles in turning the World War Z property into a PG-13 trilogy. At this point in the ever-mutating life span of Hollywood, you could be forgiven for reacting to every single trailer by sneering, “What a joke. Someone already did this concept twenty years ago… oh. It IS a joke. Reboot.” Caveat emptor: there is no reason to assume for a second that the title 21 Jump Street is anything but a marketing brainfart designed to get asses in seats. This movie is really called Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum Go Back to High School. Got it? Okay. You might as well call it, oh, Strangers With Candy.
At first, it seems like Hill, whose baby this is, put as little thought into developing this as the studio did in branding it. The setup is horrible, a badly-edited trailer in itself, establishing — get this — that Hill’s the nerd and Tatum’s the jock. They decide to become cops for some reason, and before you’ve decided who’s holding the popcorn, they’re back in school. The seven-minute prologue of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring feels leisurely in comparison. We’re not sure why we should care.
However, Jonah, who recently suffered the indignity of his brilliantly insufferable “Allen Gregory” series being shitcanned by Fox in favor of a dumb “Napoleon Dynamite” retread, is nothing if not a quick study. At first the movie itself acts like a confused college kid dating a girl from his old high school, awkward and out of place and not quite sure what to do. It’s a loss of identity that spells trouble for a project that’s already dispensed with its pedigree. Is this flick supposed to be about the humiliation of living with Mom again? The fish-out-of-water comedy of millennials dealing with a school, ten years on, that doesn’t let you get in fistfights and call people gay anymore? The bond that grows between nerd and jock as they complete their undercover narc mission?
Fortunately, the movie eventually picks the last option and runs with it (although there was also a lot of promise in the PC thing), and that’s when the fun starts. Ice Cube as the angry black police chief — a too-safe choice in itself, since Cube stopped being scary when Jonah himself was a freshman — mostly disappears, and we get instead a buddy comedy with a tasty and emotionally well-developed twist: Jonah’s character’s second chance means he gets to make himself over as the cool kid, and Channing’s character finds out that learning can actually be fun and empowering.
This, of course, puts them at odds with each other, proving that some things about high school haven’t changed. Hill also knows when to pull out the stops, and how — self-aware yet still badass car chases, obligatory post-salvia drug humor, a priceless and irreverent cameo by Johnny Depp that’s a spoiler in itself. It doesn’t exactly have the balls-out anarchic spirit (or stellar supporting cast) of Superbad, but this pre-summer smackdown, call it what you may, does eventually make it to graduation. It throws a pretty tight ring night party, too. (PRODUCTION NOTE: many of the scenes are shot at West Jefferson High School in New Orleans, about three miles from my alma mater. Buccaneers suck. Old habits die hard.)