I barely got out of the theater before I was texting any friend who I thought would care.
"21 Jump Street is Fucking. Awesome."
It wasn't eloquent (recipients of that text know me to be significantly less-than), but it was fitting of the movie I'd just seen, a big-budget action comedy with a well-earned R rating. Maybe I was swooning from seeing it with a raucous crowd who laughed so hard we actually missed some dialogue, or maybe I was impressed with how far it sailed over the low bar of expectations I had set. My friends were understandably skeptical, but I assured them (and stick to this assurance several weeks later): it's not going to win an Oscar, but 21 Jump Street was one of the most fun movie experiences I've had in a while.
Some important things to know: you do NOT need to have watched the original TV series on which the film is loosely based, although it does help to have a passing familiarity with what the show was about, and it helps to know who starred in that original series, otherwise the Holly Robinson Peete cameo might strike you as a little odd. It also helps if you liked Superbad, because while this is nowhere near the same movie, you kind of have to be on board with the "Jonah Hill in a high school setting" idea. Don't let the weight loss fool you; this is definitely still Hill's kind movie, which means plenty of dick jokes but no poop jokes. A sleeker Hill gets to recall his most manic moments from Superbad with a little extra confidence, and the character of Schmidt probably doesn't work with his previous body frame.
Presumably, however, Hill isn't the source of your reservations about the movie. That honor goes to Channing Tatum, professional set of abs. This is the most important thing about 21 Jump Street: Tatum is really great. This goes back to the "low bar" theory above, but he went WAY above my expectations. They deliberately typecast him as a meathead jock type and then spend the rest of the movie either tearing him down or making him play the part completely straight. As Jenko (Schmidt's partner), he ends up with a lot of the heart of the movie and pulls it off. There's an entire subplot that feels like a variation on the Freaks & Geeks series finale when James Franco plays D&D with the geeks. I don't expect you to come out of the movie on the CT bandwagon like I did, but at the very least you can see that he's capable of something beyond The Vow.
It also helps that the two are flanked by a group of great supporting performances, including Ice Cube as their supervisor and a high school faculty that includes Rob Riggle and Ellie Kemper. The performances across the board are what make the film so memorable, and the plot (undercover cops trying to bust a high school drug ring) plays as an homage to the original series but otherwise stays out of the way.
One of the film's greatest strengths is its relentless self-awareness. No sooner do they set up their premise than they start tearing it down (watch how they deftly avoid dropping a titular line). Tatum's sore-thumb status in a school full of pubescent teens is the subject of several jokes, as are the heroes' misconceptions about today's high school climate. That's why I gave it such a high recommendation: you can tell that they tried very hard to make the 21 Jump Street remake so much better than what you are probably expecting out of a 21 Jump Street remake.
I'd like to say that it's going to be this year's breakout comedy, that it will get the buzz previously seen by huge, foul-mouthed comedies like The Hangover or Bridesmaids, but those expectations are way too high. The last time a movie caught me this far off guard, it was Old School, way back in 2003, because I never thought a Luke Wilson/Will Ferrell movie would be that funny. Well, I didn't expect a Channing Tatum movie to be THIS funny. 21 Jump Street might not be transcendent, but it's very entertaining, and hopefully it will catch you off guard.