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21 Jump Street

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The movie version of “21 Jump Street” isn’t faithful to the tone or spirit of the TV show, which ran from 1987-91 on the fledgling Fox Network. It isn’t quite a satire of the show either, despite five or six lines of dialogue suggesting such a thing, nor is it a parody of buddy-cop movies, though there’s also some of that. So what is the movie version of “21 Jump Street”? I dunno, but it’s funny.

A giddily foul-mouthed and playful comedy, “21 Jump Street” stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as rookie cops whose baby faces make them prime candidates to go undercover as high school students to break up a drug operation. (“We’re reviving an old program from the ’80s,” says their boss, wink-wink.) Something else that makes them ideal for this kind of thing: they’ve screwed up all their previous assignments. Schmidt (Hill), though smart, is too timid and physically weak to be effective. Jenko (Tatum) has the brawn and braggadocio, but he’s too dumb to remember the words to the Miranda warning.

When they actually were in high school, Schmidt and Jenko, as nerd and jock, were sworn enemies. As police officers, they have chosen to combine their strengths and work together. Still, Schmidt is nervous to re-enter the perilous waters of high school, to be exposed to the taunts of peers who aren’t even really his peers. Jenko figures he’s got it made, since he’s still as athletic and extroverted as he was when he graduated.

The joke is that high school has changed since then. “Liking comic books is popular!” Jenko shouts in amazement. Kids are environmentally conscious and tolerant of others. It’s cool to study hard and work toward going to college! The tables have turned for Schmidt and Jenko, opening up many avenues for comedy as they struggle to pass themselves off as citizens of a world they no longer recognize, and which might even favor the formerly unpopular Schmidt over Jenko. But the movie adds another layer — unnecessarily, I think — by having them accidentally trade their false identities, resulting in dumb Jenko being stuck in the advanced-placement classes while Schmidt has to pretend to be a track-and-field star.

At any rate, they fall in with Eric Molson (Dave Franco), a well-regarded member of the student body who also coordinates the sale of a dangerous new synthetic drug that has caught the attention of the police department. The effects of this drug are powerful and hilarious; naturally, there’s a sequence in which Jenko and Schmidt are dosed and experience all of it while at school.

The screenplay, by Michael Bacall (who co-wrote “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and last month’s disastrous “Project X”), gives everyone plenty of cheerful, ribald dialogue to say while engaging the usual devices of the “Lethal Weapon”-style buddy-cop action comedy. Most of all, under the direction of Phil Lord and Chris Miller — the duo behind “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and TV’s “Clone High” — everyone is clearly having a good time. Ice Cube revels in his few scenes as the guys’ “angry black captain” character; Chris Parnell and Rob Riggle do nice work as teachers; Johnny Simmons is breathtakingly funny as a student whose drug trip made it to YouTube. (Less useful is Ellie Kemper, playing a young teacher with the hots for Jenko, a joke that never goes anywhere.)

Best of all, and perhaps most surprising, is the easy comic chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. To be honest, it’s surprising that the equation Tatum + x = funny is ever true, regardless of who x is. The guy is charismatic and dances well and is usually likable even in his blandest roles, but a comedian he is not. Yet here he demonstrates real talent for physical shtick and a good grasp of timing (which is everything), and easily holds his own in partnership with the more experienced Hill.

I assume “21 Jump Street” purists exist (simply because I assume purists for every extinct entertainment property exist), and I assume they’ll consider this reinterpretation a travesty. To be sure, there’s little reason for this to have been a “21 Jump Street” adaptation instead of a standalone undercover-cops-in-a-school comedy. But it’s not just a nostalgia-peddling cash-grab either, as it offers raucous laughs contained in a jubilant male-bonding storyline. See it with a bro.

B (1 hr., 49 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity and sexual dialogue, brief partial nudity, some action violence.)

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