What do we really expect at this point from movies that cash in on nostalgia for old TV shows, cartoons, toys and board games? Every once in a while, a filmmaking team comes up with a quirky enough perspective that the revival of a title seems not just forgivable, but almost inspired.
The Brady Bunch Movie may be the standard-bearer, a shiny satire that acknowledged everything that was beloved about the blended family of hopeless squares by throwing them into a completely new cultural context. Then there is the bulldozer of hilarity that is 21 Jump Street.
In this cockeyed take on the 1987-1991 Fox TV show that made Johnny Depp a star, we meet our heroes in 2005 as high school seniors - Jenko (Channing Tatum) the dumb jock, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) the socially inept nerd. The former antagonists find themselves classmates once again at the police academy, where they form an unlikely partnership. It extends to their first big assignment: joining a program sending young-looking cops undercover as high school students, and trying to find out who's dealing a new designer drug known as "H.F.S." (for "Holy Fucking Shit").
Screenwriter Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) could have gone for straightforward buddy-cop action. Hell, it might have been sufficient if he'd only aimed for a parody of buddy-cop action. And he hits plenty of great targets in that respect, starting with Ice Cube as Jenko and Schmidt's superior officer, who loudly embraces his stereotypical role as the "angry black captain."
But the real brilliance in 21 Jump Street comes from the way Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller exploit the high school setting. It's amusing enough, if somewhat expected, that Jenko and Schmidt wind up adopting roles completely opposite from those they had as teens - Schmidt becoming the popular kid, Jenko forced to hang out with the science geeks whose password for entering the chem lab is "Kneel before Zod."
Better yet is turning the cops' inability to blend in into a commentary on the ridiculous rate of change that makes it so their seven-years-gone high school experience might as well have been in the 1950s. From the confusion of one student (Brie Larson) that fellow "student" Schmidt would call her rather than text, to the growing social consciousness that makes nerd-mocking Jenko a dinosaur, 21 Jump Street has a blast showing how the generation gap no longer waits a generation.
It's true that the filmmakers push farther into over-the-top crude than seems necessary, including a final shootout with particularly painful results, and a propensity for using the f-bomb like a 12-year-old who's just discovered it. But 21 Jump Street finds its humor in so many places - from the twisted hallucinogenic effects of the new drug, to a performance by Tatum that finds depths of charm previously unimaginable - that the only really appropriate word is "inspired."