In case you’ve forgotten, expectations were low when 21 Jump Street premiered in theaters a decade ago. While we weren’t quite as mired in reboots and remakes as we are now, no one seemed particularly inspired by the idea of reviving the 80s TV show with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as the main characters. Tatum wasn’t exactly known for his comedic prowess then, despite his hilarious turn in She’s the Man, and Hill was starting to pivot to more serious films, like Moneyball. The equation just didn’t seem to add up.
Boy were we wrong.
A quick recap in case you haven’t seen the movie in a while: Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) attended the same high school, but were on opposite ends of the social hierarchy. Jenko was a popular jock, while Schmidt was head of the juggling society. As adults, they become cops and, against all odds, best friends. They’re sent undercover as brothers at a high school as part of the 21 Jump Street operation in order to find and stop the supplier of the new hot (and deadly) drug HFS (Holy Fucking Shit). Funnily enough, Schmidt ends up falling in with the popular kids, while Jenko learns what it’s like to be a geek, a dynamic that threatens their friendship. They reconcile just in time for prom and team up to take down the bad guys.
To this day, 21 Jump Street is one of those films that consistently entertains, even on a fifth or fifteenth watch. The key decision to keep the premise for this soft reboot but change the tone and plot means that the movie stands on its own two feet. 21 Jump Street also spawned a rare comedy sequel that actually works. And while I’m not a fan of copaganda, this movie will always have a special place in my heart.
In honor of its tenth anniversary, here are ten reasons to love the dark horse comedy:
I want more movies where himbos fall in with a troop of geeks. It works so incredibly well here, with Jenko befriending the gang of misfits who hang out in the chem lab during their free time (as a nerd who ate lunch in the English teacher’s room, I relate). The transition from Jenko bluffing his way through their first hangout to later in the movie when he greets them with an elaborate secret handshake is so endearing. His final presentation in AP Chemistry, with the nerds watching and nodding encouragingly from their desks, proves one of the sweetest moments of the film.
Plenty of films feature car chases and drug trips, but the stylized editing of 21 Jump Street gives these moments extra comedic punch. When the drug distributing motorcycle gang chases Jenko and Schmidt on the freeway, they leave some potentially explosive vehicles in their wake, only for the trucks to remain very much not on fire. That is, until they come across one full of chickens. Joel Negron’s (Thor: Ragnarok, The Nice Guys) emphatic editing heightens the audience’s expectations that surely one of these oil tankers will explode, making the let down even funnier than it would be otherwise. His talents also come in handy whenever a character’s tripping on HFS, adding some extra color to the drug’s different phases.
Most films have lulls, which is fine, I guess. But 21 Jump Street doesn’t let up at all. The exposition is short and sweet, and the middle, where plenty of comedies lag, moves forward at a zippy pace, hopping from gag to gag with unflappable energy. Even at the end of act two, when Schmidt and Jenko are on the outs, the movie avoids getting stuck in the sad montage quagmire, instead keeping the narrative momentum going as we approach the showdown at prom.
The underlying premise of 21 Jump Street is all about subverting expectations, whether it’s the fact that former nerds like Schmidt can find themselves at the top of the high school food chain, or that an ex-burnout like Jenko can become a chemistry whiz. But subversion only really works when you know the tropes being flipped on their heads. Screenwriter Michael Bacall (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) weaves tropes throughout the script expertly—like when Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) quickly assesses Schmidt and Jenko’s dynamic just by looking at them—before switching things up. Sometimes it feels a bit on-the-nose, but it’s always funny enough to be forgiven.
Every high school movie worth its salt has a party scene, and 21 Jump Street doesn’t disappoint. Even the lead-up to the party—the dynamic duo raiding the evidence locker for weed, relabeling Jenko’s mix CD—makes me laugh. And as for the party itself, it has it all: a threesome in the parents’ bed, smashed precious pottery, a knife sticking out of Schmidt’s back, and an LMFAO needle drop (how sad that that makes me nostalgic).
Rob Riggle was born to play assholes. There’s something about his overly macho cadence and shit-eating grin that make him perfect for those roles, so he shines as the gym coach (and drug supplier) Mr. Walters. His cameo in 22 Jump Street is horrible and problematic, but Riggle fits in just right in the original.
When Schmidt and Jenko go undercover, they have to stay at Schmidt’s parents’ house, and what a treat for us viewers at home. Caroline Aaron as his mother, Annie, and Joe Chrest as his father, David, steal every scene they can. Their house is decorated like the set from Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born and they dote on Schmidt as only parents of a beloved nerd can. Highlights from their performances include Annie calling her son a narc as she smokes a joint and the parents being confronted with a phallus-covered photo of Schmidt.
21 Jump Street is an action comedy, and as a huge fan of the latter but rarely the former, the level of action manages to strike just the right tone. The initial chase scene, with Jenko and Schmidt struggling to keep up with the biker gang, fits in plenty of gags but also keeps the adrenaline pumping. They cram in running action jokes, like Jenko’s ability to coolly slide across the hood of a car, while Schmidt’s efforts are far less graceful. Thanks to this delicate tightrope act, both action and comedy fans are sated by the film’s fast-paced sequences.
This may seem a bit out of left field, but I have deep respect for this movie because it promotes the wearing of both backpack straps. A generation of children (possibly) have less back pain because of 21 Jump Street, and I think that’s beautiful.
Much of why 21 Jump Street works as a movie, on both a comedic and an emotional level, comes down to the two stars. Tatum strikes just the right balance as a former jock trying to prove he’s more than just muscle, and Hill succeeds at Schmidt because he’s good at playing a nerd, but he can just as easily play an asshole. We don’t get to see much of the start of their friendship (Jenko literally asks “Hey, you want to be friends?” when he realizes they can both help the other pass the police academy exam), but once it’s coalesced, their natural chemistry is undeniable. This is one covalent bond that can’t be broken.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.