“Embrace your stereotype,” says a much-harangued captain, played with great comedic bravura by Ice Cube, not all that long into Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street, prepping his latest undercover recruits, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), for assignment. Once an awkward dweeb and loutish debaser in high school, Schmidt and Jenko bond as policemen, but are asked to return to their atypical roles to investigate a drug ring operating in local high schools, following a student’s overdose.
Adapted from the 1980s television series of the same, most famed for its hand in launching Johnny Depp’s career, 21 Jump Street plays to the strengths of its two leads, but also offers a bit of quasi-surreal displacement: Jenko’s brand of aggressively dumb and violent machismo has become unfailingly obnoxious to teenagers, who now think of going green, being tolerant, and embracing intelligence as hip. Jenko must take a backseat to Schmidt, who wins the respect of the most prominent clique, led by Dave Franco’s Eric and Brie Larson’s Molly, after running a relay race while tripping on the very drug he’s trying to abolish.
Films concerned with undercover agents make for easy discussions on the nature of performance, the dark pleasures and dangers of indulging a created or forced-upon version of one’s self, and if 21 Jump Street takes a decidedly lighter tone than, say, Deep Cover or Donnie Brasco, it still offers vibrant subtext and a rigorous, disjointed sense of humor. While Schmidt makes nice with Eric, who indeed turns out to be the school’s main dealer, Jenko makes nice with a triumvirate of science-obsessed geeks, who eventually take on the role of his surveillance and tech team. Tatum is a solid straight man, both with Hill and this triptych, but the film, scripted by Michael Bacall, takes pleasure in the sheer fascination of another role reversal: leading man as goofy underling to a neurotic, intensely self-aware comedian.
Flecks of rote, rigid formula can be gleaned, but Lord and Miller, perhaps calling on their familiarity with animation (the Clone High series, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), embrace wild, licentious fits of verbal wit and body humor often enough to defamiliarize the structure. 21 Jump Street is messy, seemingly uncouth, and wonderfully unpredictable, only hitting a lull when it sees the need to fetishize the nostalgia of its narrative (see Depp’s extended cameo toward the end). Elsewhere, the film offers a home to a myriad of talented comic performers, including Ellie Kemper, Chris Parnell, Rob Riggle, Nick Offerman, and Jake M. Johnson, allowing Hill and Tatum fertile ground to augment tired, near-procedural scenes of exposition and action. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its share of jokes that land with a dull thud, but to watch a project thought doomed by the inherent lameness of its source material turn into such a strange and smart film is exhilarating even at—or perhaps because of—its most lunatic moments.
21 Jump Street benefits hugely from Sony's near-spotless record for giving their new releases a high A/V polish and shine. The clarity is staggering, allowing for a stunning display of textures. Colors pop throughout and black levels are inky, with no visible signs of manipulation. The audio is just as good, balancing the heavy mix of dialogue, pop songs, sound effects, and Mark Mothersbaugh's zippy score with precision. Dialogue is clear and out front, while the sound of car explosions and busy high school hallways meld perfectly with Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady."
The smattering of featurettes here is smartly fixed on the performers, their techniques, and rapport with one another. One featurette exclusively focuses on Rob Riggle, while another one showcases the admittedly stellar comedic chemistry of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. The deleted scenes and gag reels are worth a watch as well, but the key extra is the audio commentary, featuring the directors, Hill, and Tatum. It's an exciting, humorous discussion of how the film came to be, but it also is a sort of microcosm of the film, in that discussion of the production often veers off into funny tangents; they can't help but want to make each other and, presumably, their audience laugh. An Ultraviolet copy of the film is also included.
Sony gives Phil Lord and Chris Miller's gleeful, anarchic 21 Jump Street an excellent A/V transfer and a generous heaping of extras that rightfully focus on the inventive comedic spirit of the film.