A comedy sequel (uh-oh) to a film that was based on a defunct TV show (yikes) ought to be an unwatchable disaster. That’s the America I grew up in, anyway. But after the surprising non-badness of 21 Jump Street two years ago, and the even more surprising greatness of The LEGO Movie not five months ago, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the directing duo responsible for them, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, have returned with the top-to-bottom hilarious 22 Jump Street and exceeded all expectations yet again.
It’s reassuring to see a comedy made by people who have already considered the objections you were going to raise. 22 Jump Street overcomes the limitations of a sequel by facing them head-on, doubling down on the meta-references that peppered the first film and staying a step ahead of us with multi-layered jokes and split-second sight gags. Lord and Miller and their screenwriters (Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman) know what we’re thinking, and they want to make sure we know that they know.
After an unsuccessful try at a different kind of case, yin-and-yang cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are brought back to Jump Street by their boss (Nick Offerman), who reminds them that “nobody gave a s*** about the Jump Street reboot” before, but that “now this department has invested A LOT of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going.” Contextually, he means the Metro City Police Department’s undercover program, nicknamed Jump Street. But of course we know what he really means.
The job this time: pose as Metro City State College freshmen and find out where a deadly new recreational drug is coming from so they can stop it before it spreads to other campuses. (Yes, as many characters are quick to point out, it’s the same situation as last time.) Schmidt hooks up with Maya (Amber Stevens), an art student who knew the girl who overdosed, while Jenko pursues leads through the football team, becoming best pals with Zook (Wyatt Russell), a grinning blond fratboy who’s another yang to Jenko’s yang.
Just as before, there’s a lot of humor in reversing people’s roles and challenging stereotypes. It’s Schmidt, not Maya, who gets clingy and does the post-hookup “walk of shame,” and he’s jealous at how smoothly Jenko gets along with Zook. Thanks to a human sexuality course, meathead Jenko becomes enlightened and refuses to tolerate someone’s use of a gay slur. The film knows that the Jenko-Zook relationship is like a romance (complete with a “meet cute”), and it plays up the similarities for comic effect without tipping over into moronic “gay panic” humor. The whole film is ultimately an affectionate, touchy-feely story about friendship and partnership — and it’s sincere about it, too.
There are running gags about Schmidt and Jenko looking too old to be freshmen, and about the Jump Street budget being significantly higher than before. New characters like the twins across the hall (Keith and Kenny Lucas) and Maya’s scornful roommate (Jillian Bell) help immeasurably, as does beefing up Ice Cube’s role as the cops’ angry captain. It’s a great pleasure to see Channing Tatum (whose comedic talent is now undeniable) cavort with an actor (Kurt Russell’s son!) playing a character identical to his, and Jonah Hill’s cuddly belligerence continues to serve him well.
Above all, Lord and Miller are intent on keeping things funny, loose, and unpredictable. They revel in the silliness of the action-comedy genre, playfully satirizing and subverting it all the way through the closing credits. Not only is 22 funnier than 21, it’s more focused and less scattershot, an improvement on almost every level. It has jokes that went over my head until I thought about them later. When’s the last time a studio-produced, wide-release comedy did that? This franchise is almost a miracle.
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