I have hazy recollections of the TV series 21 Jump Street, though I couldn't honestly say whether that's because I ever sat through an episode (did it even reach the UK, I wonder?), or because it provided the trivia titbit of an early role for Johnny Depp as one of a pair of students-turned-undercover cops, or undercover cops-turned-students, or whatever they were. (Like I say, hazy.) If the show was hardly crying out for a big-screen revival, any subsequent feature would at least operate with the advantage of emerging from source material that never became sacred, in the way the Tintin books, say, or the Alec Guinness version of Tinker Tailor... have. 21 Jump Street: The Film aims no higher than daft, however, and you'll either go along with that happily enough, or come away feeling somewhat shortchanged. Shortchanged by a 21 Jump Street movie, eh? The joke, I would propose, is on us.
The one truly clever gag in Michael Bacall's screenplay comes early, and sets a bar the next 100 minutes don't even attempt to get near. Here, the Deputy Chief of Police assigning rookie cops Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill to a high-school detail infiltrating a drugs gang makes the self-reflexive acknowledgement that this sting is "a revival of an old program [sic] from the Eighties, because the guys in charge have no new ideas". The detail, it turns out, is overseen by Ice Cube, who immediately identifies himself as "an angry black police captain", a role Mr. Cube proceeds to play as both angry and black. "Embrace the stereotype," is his on-screen rationale, and the film's idea of a defence. Already, we see the tactic: directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller adopt the scattershot methods of their previous animated success Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (the Cube character isn't so very far removed, in his attitude and movements, from the traffic cop voiced by Mr. T in the earlier film), only with smarmy wise-assery in the place of Cloudy's heart.
There are hints of satire along the lines of The Brady Bunch Movie, as Hill and Tatum's 1990s graduates, raised in the brutalist arena of jocks-versus-nerds, suddenly find themselves out of place in a post-Glee environment where the drama queens and tryhards are the cool kids, but Tatum's "Fuck you, Glee" is assumed to close the file on the matter. (There were more sophisticated asides in the ill-fated Get Smart reboot.) Elsewhere, the film serves as ample proof of how, in the wrong hands, comedy and drama alike can be loosened to the point of slackness in the New American Comedy. There's a surfeit of scenes in which the one solid comic idea or semi-serious plot point gets buried beneath a bundle of tossed-off, that'll-do mad-libs and non-sequiturs (or, worse still, an LMFAO record). 21 Jump Street could be the first movie to be composed almost entirely of alternate scenes, one that offers no outtakes in the end credits, because they're all in the film itself. (It exists as its own blooper reel.)
A lesser troupe of funny people (Rob Riggle; one of the Bridesmaids; the David Krumholtz-looking dude from New Girl) swing by for the catering, and Depp's in here, too, lending whatever knowing hipster cachet the star of The Tourist and Life's Too Short can now bring to a project, but the scripted comedy rarely rises above the predictable, heavy on the dick jokes and gay panic, the kind of enterprise where a supporting character's weary rejoinder not to rev up an unmarked squad car like a pair of teenagers cues an insta-cut to our heroes doing exactly that. Hill, one of the few leading men to have gone on a diet only to end up looking less healthy, is reduced to grabbing at punchlines that aren't there; Tatum, a performer whose entire success and star persona depends on a level of sincerity alien to a hardsell item like this, mistakes rowdy for funny, and throws himself into drumkits for shits and giggles. The keynote performance comes from a day player in the role of a driving instructor, who - noticing the cops stealing one of his vehicles - shrugs "who cares?" All its silliness is sprinkled on a bedrock of cynicism: it's a revival that foregrounds its own pointlessness in order to get an audience to pay for it. Those gullible enough to do so shouldn't be surprised to learn that movies majoring in throwaway asides all too rapidly become throwaway themselves.
21 Jump Street opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.