The film version of 21 Jump Street might as well have ironic quotation marks around its title, since damn near everything else in it does. The proudly goofy take-off on the television show that made Johnny Depp a reluctant teen idol is less an adaptation than an “adaptation” that delights in highlighting the ridiculous clichés and tropes it lampoons. Like the equally irreverent film version of Starsky & Hutch, 21 Jump Street is less interested in recycling the conventions of the show it’s ostensibly adapting for the big screen than in exaggerating them for comic effect. Rather than pretending that 31-year-old Channing Tatum could convincingly pass for a high-school student, for example, the screenplay has characters repeatedly calling Tatum out for looking like a middle-aged man. 21 Jump Street leans heavily on hyper-self-awareness in ways that can be both refreshing and exhausting. For instance, Ice Cube plays a one-note angry black police captain who openly acknowledges that he’s a stereotype. That’s where the joke begins, and that’s where it ends.
Jonah Hill (who also co-wrote the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall) and Channing Tatum star as former high-school adversaries who become partners and pals, and are subsequently dispatched to go undercover at a high school to stop the dissemination of a powerful new designer drug. Due to a mix-up early in the assignment, their classes and personas get switched: Hill ends up mixing with the popular drama-class kids and trying out for the track team, while Tatum’s giant slab of beefcake has to assimilate into the shadowy world of science-loving poindexters. In one of the film’s sharpest gags, the previously popular Tatum is flummoxed to discover that in today’s teen world, his kind of chiseled brawn is out of fashion, and the most popular kids are eco-friendly academic overachievers and gay African-Americans.
The title and the bare-bones premise aren’t the only elements of the film redolent of pop culture’s recent past. 21 Jump Street combines the half-forgotten conventions of the mismatched buddy-cop movies of the ’80s with Clinton-era gags about political correctness. Nick Offerman helps establish a knowing, giddily self-referential tone early on by telling Hill and Tatum he’s assigning them to a program from the ’80s that was discontinued but resurrected because the police department has completely run out of new ideas. 21 Jump Street is appropriately devoid of novel concepts (the first big, ironic laugh comes when the logo for the production company “Original Film” appears onscreen), but it’s more consistently amusing and inspired than an adaptation of an ’80s TV show has any right to be.