By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Turning popular TV shows into movies is a fast lane to flopville, as too many such adaptations have proven. Occasionally the upgrade works — The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible and most Star Trek flicks, for example — but money wasted on too many others to mention could dent the national debt.
That's why the resurrection and reinvention of 21 Jump Street is such a pleasant surprise. This movie embraces everything that should make it lousy, calling out itself for aping the source's bad ideas then flipping the script with meta precision. A high school cop show that took itself much too seriously is exposed as the joke that it was, and that's pretty darn funny.
Credit the screenplay by Michael Bacall that doesn't meet a cliche it can't skewer, and the inspired pairing of Jonah Hill (whom we know can be hilarious) and Channing Tatum (whom we don't but he is).
Hill plays Morton Schmidt, first seen in high school sporting an Eminem hairstyle that can't disguise his nerdiness. One of his frequent insulters is Greg Jenko (Tatum), a dumb jock without a future unless it's pushing people around. Their paths cross later in police academy, where Schmidt's brain and Jenko's brawn lead to bicycle cop duty. They're called on the carpet after a botched drug bust then swept under it with a new assignment.
A new designer drug is on the streets, and the source seems to be the cool kids at a local high school. Schmidt and Jenko will pose as students, infiltrate the clique and get the goods on the drug's supplier. The set-up isn't any different than cases Johnny Depp and friends solved in the TV version of 21 Jump Street. Except for a celebrity cameo that brings down the house, the similarities end there.
That much is spelled out early by the heroes' beleaguered captain (Nick Offerman), describing the sting operation as a recycled idea since people in charge are lazy and lack originality. That's what many moviegoers believe about Hollywood remakes like 21 Jump Street, and in this case they're wrong. Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller don't regurgitate a TV show; they cherish its cheesy flavor, creating something smarter than the original hoped to be.
Tatum's deadpan goofiness while spoofing his action figure physique is the key to 21 Jump Street working so well. Aside from a small role in The Dilemma (that few people watched), Tatum hasn't shown this acting side, and at least half of good comedy is the element of surprise.
That's what 21 Jump Street has on its side for most of its running time. Long enough that when a character floated the notion of a sequel the audience at a recent screening cheered. For once, my hands clapped at the prospect, too.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.