’21 Jump Street’ Review: You Have the Right to Remain Amused

Action-comedy starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum treats the forgettable cops-in-high-school show as a launching pad for inspired lunacy

If Hollywood studios are going to comb through their attics for old properties that can be relaunched as feature film franchises, they might do well to search for little-remembered TV series better known for a catchy concept (say, a squad of youthful cops who go undercover as high school students) or for its status as a cultural footnote (let’s say, for the sake of argument, it gave Johnny Depp’s career its original launch) than for the show itself.

Only a relatively small die-hard audience remembers “21 Jump Street,” the cop drama, which aired on the nascent FOX network from 1987 to 1991. But a great many more viewers will have a fondness for “21 Jump Street,” the new action-comedy movie.

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The film mildly lampoons the ludicrous premise of the TV show before using it as a jumping-off point for an inspired and wonderfully silly tale of two 20-something pals who would, in the final analysis, happily trade their guns and badges for another chance to be the popular kids in high school.

We first meet Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as high-school seniors in 2005; Jenko mocks the nerdy, Eminem-wannabe Schmidt for being too dorky to get a prom date, only to find out moments later that, thanks to his terrible grades, he won’t be attending the big dance either.

Cut to seven years later, where the two meet again as classmates at the “Metropolitan City Police Academy.” (The generic location becomes one of the film’s better running gags, down to billboards that read “Watch a Movie” or just “Billboard.”)

Jenko helps whip Schmidt into shape, and Schmidt tutors Jenko through the tests, and the two become best pals. When they screw up their first big post-graduate arrest, they get assigned to the Jump Street station for an undercover program that hasn’t been around since the ’80s. (“All they can do is recycle old ideas,” complains their superior officer, played by Nick Offerman in an amusing cameo.)

Jump Street has the requisite angry African-American police captain (Ice Cube), and the duo gets sent to infiltrate a high school where a new designer drug is making the rounds. Schmidt’s fake transcripts say he’s a science whiz, while Jenko gets enrolled in gut classes, but since the two can’t bother to remember their undercover identities, they wind up switching places, allowing Schmidt to get his first taste of popularity while Jenko hangs out with the smart geeks.

All this plotting merely provides a framework for a series of hilarious set pieces, from a wild house party (the screenplay is by Michael Bacall, the writer behind teen bacchanal “Project X”) to a prom-night car chase involving three stretch limos.

But “21 Jump Street” is also smart about its characters, from the cops getting caught up in the idea of a high school do-over to the Class of 2005’s cluelessness about things like texting, tolerance, environmentalism and the increasing amount of fragmented sub-cliques.

Coming off the debacle of “The Sitter,” Hill shows a real comic assuredness here, and Tatum delivers on the comic promise he demonstrated as the only funny element of last year’s “The Dilemma.” Most of the supporting characters are drawn as broadly as possible, but Dave Franco (brother of James) makes an impression as a high-school drug dealer who’s also concerned about the environment and his early acceptance to Stanford.

The makers of “21 Jump Street” clearly understood that almost nobody really wanted a “21 Jump Street” movie — although there are some cameos and inside jokes that fans of the original will appreciate — and they’ve cleverly used a familiar property as a way to get a wildly entertaining new comedy made.

Is Will Ferrell old enough to play Barnaby Jones yet?