21 Jump Street

Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

Surprise! This is one '80s reboot that justifies its existence with a fresh, consistently funny payoff.

Under normal circumstances, the prospect of an '80s TV crime drama reworked as an R-rated action comedy helmed by the co-directors of a family-friendly animated movie wouldn't lend itself to high expectations. The fact that the show is legendary for launching Johnny Depp's career only raises the stakes.

But any preconceived notions are decisively and refreshingly dashed where the feature reboot of 21 Jump Street is concerned. Not since Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg teamed in The Other Guys has an onscreen pairing proved as comically rewarding as the inspired partnership of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as baby-faced cops who go undercover at a high school to bust a drug ring. The laugh-out-loud upshot -- based on a story by Hill and screenwriter Michael Bacall and energetically directed by the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller -- should nab big numbers for Sony.

Although it doesn't open until March 16, the picture's looking to jump-start word-of-mouth with a March 12 sneak preview at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin.

Setting the promising tone is a prologue taking place in high school circa 2005, with Hill's nerdy Schmidt taking fashion cues from Eminem (with not-so-Slim Shady results) and Tatum's cool but clueless Jenko establishing an early adversarial relationship with Schmidt.

Cut to the present, with both graduating from the police academy and, after a botched first arrest, being reassigned to the long-dormant 21 Jump Street unit overseen by the intimidating Captain Dickson (Ice Cube, specializing in hilarious, expletive-laden slow burns).

Posing as siblings(!) attending the same high school, the two undercover cops struggle to convincingly fit in with the student body despite the readily apparent physical maturity issues, especially where Tatum's muscular Jenko is concerned.

While on-a-roll Oscar nominee Hill is in fine form, comedic and otherwise -- this is the part that prompted him to kick-start that significant weight loss -- it's Tatum, an introspective actor not thought of as an exuberant funnyman, who rises to the occasion with a loose, mischievous performance that amusingly plays off of Hill's more earnest introvert.

Brie Larson holds her own as a theater geek with trust issues, and Dave Franco (James' younger brother) does well as the school's gregarious drug dealer. And without blowing his cover, let's just say that Officer Tom Hanson himself (Mr. Depp) manages to maintain a crowd-tickling element of surprise with his previously confirmed cameo.

Lord and Miller keep the comic pace humming along agreeably with the same animated energy they provided for those raining meatballs.

Ironically, it's during the requisite action sequences that the film loses momentum, but even the de rigueur car chases and explosions are given a welcome comic tweak by the directors, Bacall's casually irreverent script and Mark Mothersbaugh's playful musical cues.

Release date: Friday, March 16 (Sony)
Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Ice Cube
Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Rated R, 110 minutes

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