The original 21 Jump Street was a late-80s cop show based on a real life LAPD unit made up of officers who looked young enough to go undercover in high schools and colleges. This film is a comedy set in a new version of the unit twenty-some years later. When the deputy chief inform the protagonists that they’s being assigned to it, he explains, “We’re reviving a canceled undercover project from the eighties and revamping it for modern times. The people behind this lack creativity and they’ve run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice.”
One of the cops he’s talking to is played by Jonah Hill (who shares story credit with screenwriter Michael Bacall). Hill predictably plays a former high school misfit. His partner, Channing Tatum, used to bully him, but only because Tatum felt it was part of his job description as a popular jock. When they ran into each other again in the police academy they realized their talents were complementary—Tatum has the brawn, Hill the brains—and ended up become quite good friends.
That’s right: For once we have a cop buddy movie in which the cops are actually friends at the start. This alone puts the film ahead of the pack.
There are a handful of other in-jokes besides the deputy chief’s description of how the 21 Jump Street unit came to be revived. My favorite takes place at the film’s low point, the standard movie development in which it looks like All Is Lost. In formulaic screenwriting this is supposed to mark the start of the third and final act of the story. In this film this dark moment occurs during a performance of a high school play, and as things on stage lie in shambles the drama teacher comes out and in an effort to get things moving again announces to the audience, “That was the end of the second act.”
The third act is, as it ought to be, the best part of the movie, and even brings back two stars of the original series in a quite funny way, but how that works is a nice surprise I won’t spoil.