Up front, I really liked 21 Jump Street. It's very funny and surprisngly poignant. It's also one of the more focused comedies of recent memory.
It's based on the TV show which ran from 1987 to 1991 and put a young actor named Johnny Depp on the map, which makes it funny how the film's lead character, police officer Schmidt (Jonah Hill), was a former geek in high school. The film opens in 2005, with Schmidt unsuccessfully asking a girl to the prom. The scene also establishes Jenko (Channing Tatum), a school jock who makes fun of Schmidt. We later see Jenko can't go to the prom because his grades are awful. The film flashes ahead seven years, showing Schmidt and Jenko in the police academy, putting their differences aside and becoming friends.
When I saw the film, I thought this all went by a little too quickly. I wanted more of the high school backstory, more of the police academy bonding. Looking back, all this is done very economically, not wasting time getting us to the main set up of the film, which is Schmidt and Jenko, due to their youthful appearances, are assigned to go undercover at a high school in order to expose a drug ring.
There's a nice reference when Schmidt and Jenko's police captain (Nick Offerman) mentions how the program is being recycled from the 80s and how nothing's original these days. The filmmakers are basically telling us they "we know how unoriginal it seems to be making 21 Jump Street in to a movie but don't worry, we'll have fun with this concept." The film is very unconscious of cop movie cliches and stereotypes like Ice Cube's "angry black police captain." There's also a nice bit during a car chase where we keep expecting vehicle to blow up. The punchline, where a certain vehicle does blow up, is very funny.
Fortunately, the film doesn't become so meta that it becomes like a Scream movie (not a knock against those movies). While the film has the plot device of undercover cops in high school, sssentially the film is about these two guys reliving high school through each other's shoes. Schmidt becomes the cool kid and falls for Molly (Brie Larson) and becomes friends with Eric (Dave Franco), who's dealing drugs, but as a result gets too deep with the people he's supposed to be investigating, and as a a result pushes away Jenko, who becomes smarter after hanging out with the science crowd. These trajectorities may seem "obvious" and "familiar" to some but I found the way in which these characters develop very poignant and relatable. Despite it's goofiness, the film shows us what it'd be like to have a high school do-over- we'd try not to have the same labels.
This is the first film I've seen Channing Tatum and similar to what others are saying, he is quite funny here, mostly because he's not trying to be funny. After he and Schmidt have to take drugs to retain their cover, he has a great moment where he draws an equation on a whiteboard and then says "Fuck you science." Jonah Hill is the kind of actor who I find grows on you and becomes more endearing the years progress. He's good here as the outcast who finally gets to be popular- and get the girl. Brie Larson is lovely here. Like Hill's co-star in Superbad, Emma Stone, she has a down to earth/girl next down relatability which makes her appealing, and their blossoming romance is sweet.
The film, as expected, ends with a set-up for a sequel. Due to the film's positive reception, both financially and critically, I think we will be seeing a sequel. I hope it's not a rehash of the first film but takes these characters and concept in interesting directions. As this film stands, it's funny, smart and has a pretty big heart...and dick jokes.