For the second week in a row, the biggest studio release is the first live-action feature from a director coming from animation. Or we should say — in the case of “21 Jump Street” — directors. The team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose previous film was the reasonably funny “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” fares better than “John Carter's” Andrew Stanton, in part because “21 Jump Street” is more modest in both scale and ambition.
Of course, “21 Jump Street” is based on the TV series of the same name, which was one of the first big hits for the Fox Network and now is remembered primarily for having kickstarted Johnny Depp's star career. The setup was essentially “The Mod Squad Goes Back to School” — youngish-looking cops working undercover as high school students.
Given that lineage, the movie is better than it has any right to be. Lord, Miller and screenwriter Michael Bacall wisely have taken the same approach as the feature version of “Starsky and Hutch” — reimagining the dated source material as comedy — with somewhat better results.
After a very brief sequence of cool student Jenko (Channing Tatum) bullying nerd Schmidt (Jonah Hill), we leap ahead seven years. The two now are the most inept pair of partners in the police force. Jenko is as much a chowderhead as Schmidt is physically inept, thus erasing his former superior status. They are demoted to working on the 21 Jump Street squad, based on their alleged ability to pass as high schoolers. (Preempting the audience reaction, a number of characters remark on their older-than-teen looks.)
The squad is headquartered at the Korean “Aroma of Christ” church; its tough boss (Ice Cube, no less) assigns them to find the distributors and source of a new drug that has become a hit in a relatively well-to-do school. But, in the film's second most irritating contrivance, the duo's fake identities get switched as soon as they arrive, so Jenko has to infiltrate the science geeks, and Schmidt the cool kids. (The most irritating contrivance is having the faux students living at Schmidt's parents' house. Oh, that won't blow their cover.)
Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell played essentially an older version of the same characters in 2010's vastly underrated “The Other Guys.” The tone is similar, except that the current film cleaves just a little bit more closely to plausibility. Still, their biggest similarity — except maybe Rob Riggle's presence in both — is the tendency to hilariously run off the rails of reality now and then. In the case of “21 Jump Street,” this is expressed mostly in scenes where the filmmakers give a big wink to the audience by making fun of Hollywood practices and cop film conventions. (An action scene near the end is clearly patterned on the shootout in the Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino film, “True Romance.”)
Hill is good, as usual, playing within his familiar range. The surprise, though, is Tatum, whose last lead role in a comedy was the awful 2006 “She's the Man.” Here, he holds his own within a cast of more seasoned comic actors.
And, yes, that cast does include the TV show's most celebrated alumnus, in a nice-sized cameo.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun