Back to school

When these guys are late for prom, they don’t get mad … they get even.

When these guys are late for prom, they don’t get mad … they get even.

Rated 4.0

A couple of years ago, if you were to have come up to me in a bar and declared, “I think Channing Tatum is a fine comedic actor!” I probably would’ve thrown my beverage on you and insulted your pants.

The resultant melee would’ve landed us in the clink for a night, ensnarled us in the criminal justice system, and alienated us from friends and family.

All because I thought Channing Tatum was a weak actor. Hey, the guy was in Step Up, G.I. Joe and Fighting, for god’s sake.

My opinion has been changing a bit over the last few years. I thought Tatum was the best thing in The Dilemma, where he showed some twisted comic potential. His dramatic turn in this year’s Haywire is actually something akin to great.

Now comes 21 Jump Street, and it’s official: Channing Tatum is a badass comedic actor. The man is funny, and is a ninja master of dumb-guy comedy.

He costars with Jonah Hill, who came up with the idea, alongside pal and screenwriter Michael Bacall, to reboot the infamous ’80s TV show that launched the career of one Johnny Depp and gave Dom DeLuise’s son something to do for four years. The reboot departs from the original’s mystery-thriller roots to become a raucous R-rated comedy. It’s at once a tribute to the show and a hilarious mutation of it.

We learn in a prologue set seven years ago that Schmidt (Hill) was a loser in high school, prone to public humiliation and really bad hair. Jenko (Tatum) was Mr. Popular, but his inability to get passing grades got him booted from prom. So they both have high school issues.

The two meet up seven years later while applying to be cops. Jenko suggests the two become friends because he needs a tutor. They actually strike up a bond that’s heartwarming and brotherly, and embark on their careers as bike cops.

After an arrest where they dry hump a perp in a public park and forget to read him his rights, the two wind up in a newly restarted police program down on 21 Jump Street. They discover via an impassioned and angry speech by their foul-mouthed captain (Ice Cube most definitely brandishing his NWA persona … what a mouth on that guy!) that they will be posing as high school kids trying to infiltrate a drug ring.

The high school is where co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) take the premise from fun to all-out genius. Former popular guy Jenko is immediately deemed weird in his return to high school, while Schmidt’s brand of geek-loser is now in vogue and embraced. The two go on separate paths, with Schmidt finding fame as the school play star, and Jenko reduced to hanging out with the nerds.

The men soon discover the high school drug ring is led by popular guy Eric (Dave Franco, brother of James), an eco-friendly kid working on the school yearbook and distributing a new synthetic drug. Schmidt and Jenko’s consumption of that synthetic drug leads to the film’s funniest sequence, culminating with them two-finger gagging each other in the boys’ bathroom.

Tatum’s portrayal of Jenko is nothing short of precious. He’s a big idiot, but the beauty in Tatum’s idiot is that he’s endearing and likeable for the film’s entire run. That Tatum can make us feel sorry for Jenko is a testament to his surprising abilities as both a dramatic and comedic actor. He trades jokes with the equally strong Hill and more than holds his own.

The film contains various cameos by 21 Jump Street’s TV incarnation alumni. I will not give anything further away.

21 Jump Street leaves itself wide open for a sequel, one that was apparently green-lit once Sony Pictures saw the impressive opening weekend returns. Looks like Hill and Tatum have got themselves a franchise. They are a strange and wonderful pairing.