I know what you’re thinking,” a disgruntled Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) tells a group of baby-faced cops in an early scene in “21 Jump Street.” “Angry, black captain! Ain’t nothing but a stupid stereotype!”
Whatever problems with stereotypes these cops have, Captain Dickson suggests they better start embracing the ones they represent. It’s advice that not only the characters struggle to follow, but one that the movie itself wrestles with, lingering between reducing its characters to stereotypes and actually making them three-dimensional individuals.
A prologue jumping back to high school circa 2005 kick-starts the film. There’s Schmidt (Jonah Hill), a short and insecure nerd taking fashion tips from Eminem. And there’s Jenko (Channing Tatum), a handsome, dumb jock who roams the lockers, bullying geeks.
Jenko humiliates Schmidt as he struggles to ask the popular girl in school to prom. It’s a hilarious scene, but it’s the same character interaction between stereotypes we’ve seen countless times in other comedies.
The film then cuts to the present, where the two reunite at police academy. Instead of continuing their adversarial relationship, they discover they’re better off helping each other, so they become friends and graduate as partners.
Their first assignment: Go undercover as high school students to track down the dealer of a dangerous drug.
Jenko and Schmidt view this more as a trip back to hell than a chance to recreate their high school experiences. On top of that, a foolish mistake forces them to switch identities. Jenko must be the eggheaded introvert, while Schmidt must pass off as a cool kid.
By forcing them to inhabit new character complexions, the movie avoids the stereotyping techniques that often hurt comedies by allowing Jenko and Schmidt to discover different sides of themselves.
The two know they’re entering a new high school atmosphere, which perturbs them at first. But it’s this new setting that convinces Schmidt to break free from his shell and that forces Jenko to shake off any vanity. The story dissolves any character cliches by allowing the protagonists to grow.
Both Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill delineate their characters with emotional complexity. Hill nails the gradual decomposition of Schmidt’s humility as he’s embraced by the popular kids. And Tatum aces Jenko’s facetious insouciance that comes with a jock’s virility but also hints at the shades of vulnerability behind the bravado.
Even the cool kids are not reduced to antagonists. The theater geek Molly (Brie Larson) is not limited to just being Schmidt’s love interest. The actress is given ample room to develop Molly’s trust issues and romantic insecurities. And Eric (Dave Franco) is not your typical drug dealer. We wonder why he’s resorted to this illicit profession when he comes from an affluent background and is accepted into an elite university.
Even though the movie does succeed in crafting layered characters, it continues to refer back to stock characters that earlier comedies have housed. The smart kids remain ordinary nerds hacking away in front of computers or making science experiments. And Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle) reminds us of the same P.E. teachers we see over and over in teen films.
Nevertheless, “21 Jump Street” more often offers three-dimensional characters than not, elevating it to high volumes of laughter. If not original, then the movie proves to be at least a potent comedy with two bona fide performances.