Review: '21 Jump Street' collars plenty of laughs

Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper), center, takes a liking to a new chemistry student, undercover cop Jenko (Channing Tatum), right, in "21 Jump Street."

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Ms. Griggs (Ellie Kemper), center, takes a liking to a new chemistry student, undercover cop Jenko (Channing Tatum), right, in "21 Jump Street."

Schmidt and Jenko are more than ready to leave their adolescent problems behind. Joining the police force and the secret Jump Street unit, they use ...

Rating: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence

Length: 109 minutes

Released: March 16, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle

Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Writer: Michael Bacall, Jonah Hill

More info and showtimes »

Those old enough to remember "21 Jump Street," the 1980s TV series that shot Johnny Depp to fame, know that it was the '80s epitome of cool. The gritty Fox show about baby-faced cops working undercover in high school was the antithesis of traditional major-network dramas and melodramas.

The big-screen reboot of "21 Jump Street" is much more mainstream than its predecessor, and it's anything but cool. Then again, it's aiming for laughs, which it delivers, while adding its two cents to the R-rated just-beyond-teen genre. To prove its cred, "21 Jump Street" casts Jonah Hill ("Superbad") and Channing Tatum ("Step Up") as the leads. It has been several years since either actor was a teen, and it's hard to imagine either of them getting carded, but their past works make them relatable to the high-school background. Besides, both bring a good measure of likability, an asset essential in a film as flimsy as this one.

A prologue set in 2005 establishes the characters. Schmidt (Hill) is a high-school nerd who tries (but fails) to disguise his nerdiness by emulating Eminem in appearance. Jenko (Tatum) is a jock and popular guy who bullies kids like Schmidt. The only thing they have in common is that both are banned from attending prom.

Seven years later, Schmidt and Jenko are reunited as recruits at the police academy. Recognizing that each has strengths that could benefit the other, they put aside their differences and become study buddies and friends. They don't, however, automatically become good cops, so they're assigned to a resuscitated program that sends young-looking officers undercover to fight crime in high schools.

Posing as brothers, Schmidt and Jenko clumsily try to worm their way into the school's community so they can find the source of a deadly synthetic drug that's making the rounds. Turns out things have changed a lot in seven years — Jenko blames it on "Glee." On top of their missteps in assimilating, they also accidentally assume each other's identity, so Schmidt has to try to fit in with the jocks and the drama club, while Jenko has to hold his own as a science geek. It's not a pretty sight, but it's pretty funny.

The best thing about "21 Jump Street" is its self-awareness. It knows that its stars are too old to pass as teens. It knows that Schmidt and Jenko are inept idiots. It knows that it's treading shaky ground as another remake of an '80s entity. But it takes all of those weaknesses and makes comic hay of them.

It helps to have supporting performers such as Ice Cube, Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, Nick Offerman and Dave Franco (James' younger brother). All deliver reliably.

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, makers of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," milk Michael Bacall's screenplay for all the humor they can find. They also find just a little heart, but not enough that it gets in the way of the silliness.

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