As I watched 21 Jump Street, the new comedic take on the cult-classic FOX show about undercover cops posing as high-school students, one critical thought kept floating through my head:

“Does this mean I have to like Channing Tatum now?”

For now, the answer is “yes.” If he continues to impress, it won’t be the first time I have been proven wrong about someone. Heck, I used to think Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt were nothing but pretty-boy wastes of space, too, until they started nailing consistently excellent performances. Now, I’m not suggesting that Tatum is anywhere near their level yet, or even ever will be, but 21 Jump Street is definitely the moment where his true potential is finally beginning to show. And who would have ever thought that it would end up being comedic potential?

Tatum and Jonah Hill (who also developed and co-wrote the film, along with Michael Bacall) play Jenko and Schmidt, two former high-school adversaries turned best buddies in police academy. Their friendship is one at first based on what it gains them – Jenko helps the nerdy Schmidt pass his physical tests, while Schmidt helps the none-too-bright Jenko do the same on the written exams. But it soon evolves into a real friendship – the two guys obviously care about one another, and it’s actually quite sweet in its own way.

But a great friendship doesn’t make great cops, and although they both graduate from the academy, they are relegated to bike cops – obviously the lowest rung on the police ladder (just don’t tell that to the cast of Pacific Blue…which perhaps might now be due for its own cinematic reboot). Their incompetence is markedly confirmed when they screw up their very first bust, forgetting to read the perp his Miranda rights. Unsure of what else to do with them, their captain decides to re-assign them to the newly re-activated Jump Street division. In a great bit of “wink-wink” comedy, the captain explains the force has decided to dust off the program due to “a lack of imagination,” letting the audience know that the filmmakers are just as aware as we are of how tired and lame the idea of a 21 Jump Street movie even is.

At Jump Street, their new angry, black Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, reminding us how hilarious he can be when not saddled with family fare) informs the two they will be going undercover at Sagan High, in order to bust up a new synthetic drug ring. At Sagan, Jenko and Schmidt find a world completely unlike the high school days they remember. Now, the popular kids are no longer jocks, but rather eco-conscious kids who preach diversity and work on yearbook. Things get even more confused for the two when a screw-up leads to each enrolled in classes meant for the other – Schmidt is placed into blow-off classes with the cool kids, while Jenko is suddenly lost among the nerds in AP Chemistry.

Then something even weirder starts to happen – Jenko actually starts to bond with the nerds, while Schmidt in turn wins the approval of the cool kids. As a former high school loser, Schmidt loves this turn of events, occasionally losing sight of the case as he instead begins to see an opportunity to make up for his previous terrible high school experience. The problem is that his new best buddy Eric (Dave Franco, in a very funny performance that should help him start to emerge from under his brother James’ shadow) is in fact the school’s main drug dealer. Also, Schmidt’s new inclusion into the “cool group” begins putting a strain on his friendship with Jenko, who is having a very hard time accepting his new lot and seeing Schmidt in the position he once enjoyed back in his youth.

Like any successful comedy, this one is full of fun performances from both main and supporting characters. Though I’m not usually a fan of Rob Riggle, he scores huge laughs here as an overly enthusiastic gym teacher. The Office‘s Ellie Kemper plays the chemistry teacher who develops a forbidden crush on Jenko – she’s terrific, but unfortunately this is one subplot that isn’t really given as much time as it should have been, especially given the timeliness of “teacher-student affair” jokes. Meanwhile, Brie Larson is absolutely awesome as popular girl Molly, who sweetens to Schmidt. This would usually be a thankless one-note role in most other films, but Larson makes Molly feel so alive and real – she’s the kind of girl every guy wishes they could have fallen for (and actually have them fall back) in high school. Oh, and yes, Johnny Depp does indeed make a cameo (along with his former show partner Peter DeLuise), and it’s pretty damn great, allowing him to finally put a hilarious cap on the role that launched his career (even though he himself was never a fan of the character or the show).

But, of course, this is Hill and Tatum’s show, and the two surprisingly turn out to be one heck of a comedic duo. It’s funny – I never really think of Hill when I mentally list my favorite comedic stars, but if I stop and think about I have to admit this one might just be my favorite comedy since Superbad. Sure, there’s been some questionable work in-between, but Hill can be excellent when allowed to indulge in this sort of R-rated comedic tone, and this is probably his best comedic performance yet.

But the real show-stopper is Tatum. No, seriously. Although something like “his performance here is a revelation” sounds like hyperbolic nonsense, it’s actually true this time. With Jenko (and especially with playing off of a hyper-active performer like Hill), he has finally found the perfect outlet for his subtle, laid-back charisma. That’s not to suggest they’ve simply plopped Tatum down and allowed everyone else to be funny around him. No, this is a real performance from the guy, as he both pokes fun at his own image and instills Jenko with a real heart, which is particularly noticeable in the scenes where that heart is broken by seeing his friend pull away from him.  Seriously, if Tatum can nurture the comedic timing he exhibits here (he had most of the movie’s best lines, and he absolutely kills all of them), then someday we’ll look back at 21 Jump Street as the moment where he found his true calling. If nothing else, he has permanently earned a spot in my cool book for his declaration of “man, fuck Glee!

Besides the lack of more screen-time for Kemper, I have only one other slight complaint – and that’s that the cast of high school characters, as is usual in a Hollywood movie, don’t really look like high school kids. There’s a moment where Franco makes an observation about Tatum looking like a “fucking 40 year old man.” It’s a great joke, and it works, but it would have been even better if Franco and his pals also didn’t look too old to be in high school. But, then again, if they had gone with actual kids we could have lost the fine performances of people like Franco and Larson, so I suppose it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Like the best films that have come along in the Apatow-ruled era of comedy, 21 Jump Street is both offensively foul-mouthed and yet undeniably touching and sweet. At times it is also absurdly silly, but in the best way possible. It never allows the more surreal moments to overshadow the characters, which are the real attraction here. The friendship between Hill and Tatum is the film’s beating heart, and I don’t hesitate to already rank it among the “buddy comedy” greats thanks to their tremendous chemistry. And it is also proof that you can effectively pay loving tribute to a show while still poking gentle fun at it at the same time (take note, those of you who instantly wrote off the Dark Shadows trailer). I’ll be pretty surprised if I see a better comedy than this this year. In fact, I can honestly say the comedy I’m most looking forward to now is 21 Jump Street 2.

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