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21 Jump Street
The only thing getting blown tonight is their cover.

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson & Ice Cube
Directed By: Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Story By: Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill
Screenplay By: Michael Bacall
Based on the TV Series By: Stephen J. Cannell & Neal H. Moritz
Produced By: Jonah Hill, Ezra Swerdlow & Channing Tatum
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Rating: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Website: 21jumpstreet-movie.com
Budget: $42 million
Genre: Action / Comedy
Release Date: March 16, 2012

In the new action-comedy 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum (The Vow) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball) play a dangerously incompetent pair of rookie cops whose botched arrest of a drug-dealing biker gang lands them in the police department's newly resurrected Jump Street program for “immature-seeming” officers. Tasked with investigating the manufacture and distribution of a deadly synthetic drug, the clueless duo somehow botch their undercover assignments, leaving the nerdy, insecure Hill to infiltrate the popular crowd while the dim-witted Tatum languishes in AP classes.

The filmmakers mine laughs from the disconnect between the pair's own high school experiences and the reality of a generation of technologically savvy, socially conscious, sexually relaxed teens. It takes former alpha male Tatum mere seconds on campus to inadvertently commit a hate crime and nearly get expelled; his increasing outrage over what passes for modern-day cool is a go-to joke throughout the film. But for a former wallflower like Hill, being accepted by popular Dave Franco (Fright Night) and his friends is a dream come true – except for the tiny fact that they are the targets of his investigation.

Tatum and Hill make for an exceptionally strong comedy team, with Tatum's laid-back meathead routine nicely complementing Hill's anxious loudmouth, but the film's ace in the hole is its ridiculously solid supporting ensemble. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) have stocked their supporting cast with improv heavy hitters like Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, Nick Offerman, Jake M. Johnson and Rob Riggle, then give them plenty of room to play off the leads to maximize each scene's comic potential. Kemper (Bridesmaids), in particular, steals the show as a repressed science teacher who not-so-secretly lusts after the handsome Tatum.

As long as the focus is on the funny, everything's golden. It's only when the film strays into action and drama that the shine fades a bit. The requirements of plot advancement sometimes stifle the otherwise effortless tone, and the officers' ever-crumbling bromance sometimes aims for emotional resonance that's simply unearned. The good news is that each of the action sequences, though mandatory, do have their own distinct logic and flavor, and at least one high-speed chase, set on a highway during rush hour traffic, provides enough comic beats to serve its function while still being extremely entertaining.

The script, written by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World scribe Michael Bacall (based on a story by Bacall and Hill) is sometimes too self-aware for its own good, but aside from a few well-timed cameos and background in-jokes, it largely stands on its own merits. It does bend over backwards to establish Hill's high school love interest Brie Larson (“The United States of Tara”) as being over the legal age of consent, but once their relationship begins, it's refreshingly honest in its portrayal of how attitudes about teen sexuality have progressed since the 1980s. When Hill learns that Franco and Larson “blow each other sometimes, but it's nothing serious,” the revelation isn't treated as an obstacle to be overcome, but simply as the green light for Hill to invite her to the prom.

At first glance, 21 Jump Street shouldn't be any good. A big-budget action comedy remake of a 1980s teen cop drama, it gives every impression of being just the latest in an extremely long line of cynical Hollywood experiments in laboratory-tested brand recognition. But by treating the show's questionable premise as a very loose backdrop for well-written, character-driven comedy, 21 Jump Street establishes itself as a hilarious, sloppy and largely crowd-pleasing work.

4 Stars (out of 5)

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