The new action-comedy "21 Jump Street" blindsided me in the best, most refreshing way possible. It was at least ten times better than the movie that I had imagined I was about to see; most movies live up (or down) to a viewer's preconceived expectations, this one quite nearly shattered mine.
The story, very loosely based on the television series that introduced Johnny Depp to the world, goes like this: Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are a pair of rookie police officers whose first assignment -- bicycle patrol -- doesn't quite measure up to their dreams. After screwing up an arrest (Schmidt gets run over, literally, by his quarry; Jenko fails to read the Miranda warning to his), their boss reassigns the partners to a "resurrected undercover program from the 80s," found at the titular address. (One of the movie's numerous pleasures is its self-awareness -- the smart script by Michael Bacall tweaks the conventions of most TV cop shows and action movies to often hilarious effect.)
Their new captain (Ice Cube; gruff, rough and funny) sends the pair into a high school as undercover operatives. The assignment: Infiltrate and break up a ring that is selling a potentially lethal new drug to the kids there. Schmidt, who was a fumbling nerd in high school, fears the task, but Jenko -- a not-so-sharp BMOC in the same school as Schmidt -- is looking forward to the opportunity to relive the best years of his life.
When they get to the school, however, a mix-up puts Schmidt in with the popular crowd who take an instant liking to him, while Jenko winds up with the brainiacs in AP Chemistry (which he pronounces "ap-chemistry"). But they still manage to find their way inside the dealers' inner circle, a group led by a sleepy-eyed Berkeley-bound environmentalist/senior yearbook editor (Dave Franco) who has blindly succeeded in lowering himself and his friends into a nasty quagmire with a drug-dealing motorcycle gang.
The movie achieves take-off velocity early, and a lot of the credit has to go to the two leads of the film. Hill (who also helped write the story) and Tatum are two actors that I've been less than charitable to over the last few years. While Hill had managed to impress me (and a lot of others) with his Oscar-nominated dramatic work in last year's "Moneyball," Tatum's one of those screen performers who seems better-suited to roles that require more mannequin, less man.
The duo's work in "21 Jump Street," however, shows a confidence and comfort that I hadn't seen before from either actor. Hill, whose bread-and-butter is comedy, hasn't ever been this strong in one; Tatum, whom I don't ever recall seeing in a broadly, blatantly comic film like this, seems more at ease here than his tries at heavy drama, and it comes through in his performance.
Another thing I admired is the choice to have the two men become friends very early in the story, instead of having them develop grudging respect that becomes brotherhood. By avoiding such an shop-worn plot development strategy, the movie allows you to like both of them, and to root for them to succeed together, not separately.
While the movie is a pretty smooth runner, it doesn't quite operate with Swiss watch precision from start to finish. Late in the second act, the movie's energy starts to run a little low as a couple of plot threads involving the partners' friendship threaten to lock up the gears with too much sentimentality. Thankfully, those loose ends are worked out, and the movie starts humming again in short order.
Long story short, "21 Jump Street" is a terrific entertainment, one that caught me completely off-guard. I know it's early in the year, but this one might just end up being my favorite comedy of 2012. Three and a half stars (out of four).
Content advisory: "21 Jump Street" is rated R, and the rating is earned -- there's plenty of strong language and drug content throughout, scenes of teens drinking at a party, plus some fairly graphic violence and a brief nude scene. There's also a sight gag near the end of the movie that might leave some audience members squirming a bit.