“Do the same thing as the last time, and everyone will be happy,” Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) tells officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) at the start of 22 Jump Street. Hardy is referring to their new assignment — pose as college students, track down drug traffickers and bust their supplier, just like they did at a high school in the smash hit 21 Jump Street. But Hardy is also referring to the nature of sequels, comedies in particular, which often try to repeat the success of the preceding hit by trotting out the same jokes. “It’s always worse the second time around,” Hardy says, the first of the movie’s countless meta-moments.
One of the great things about 22 Jump Street, which does for sequels what the previous film did for big-screen TV adaptations, is that it incorporates all its fourth-wall jokes and references into an actual plot. Returning co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller may pack a joke into every scene (some of them inexplicable, such as the anonymous stoner smoking from a bong glimpsed in the background of a hotel room fight; what’s that guy doing there?). But they don’t take the shotgun approach of Airplane! and The Naked Gun pictures. They give you a real movie with an actual plot, not just a framework to hang jokes from: If the film’s opening 20 minutes feel a bit sluggish, that’s because the filmmakers are setting up an endless array of bits that will pay off later. Here is a crazy, goofy comedy that builds in laughs and excitement as it goes along. Lord and Miller (who also co-directed The Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) aren’t just getting better at comedy: They’re getting better at pure action, too. 22 Jump Street delivers on both counts, and the effect is exhilarating (even the end credits are hilarious).
The movie wouldn’t work, of course, without the chemistry between Hill and Tatum, an unlikely duo who share a tremendous charisma. 22 Jump Street pushes the buddy-cop/bromance humor as far as it can possibly go — the movie is on one level a platonic love story between these guys — but the humor works because the characters are so likable. Hill, who has earned Oscar nominations for his dramatic work but is primarily still known as a comedian, is the semi-straight man to Tatum’s goonish clown, and he’s confident and generous enough to allow Tatum to steal the picture from him (although Hill gets the film’s funniest scene, which involves the duo’s captain, played by Ice Cube, and a luncheon at the college).
Tatum is noticeably looser and nuttier this time, perhaps buoyed by a confidence brought on by the success of the first film. He also pulls off some impressive stunts (Jenko has apparenly learned parkour since the first movie). There are moments in 22 Jump Street when the filmmakers just let the cameras roll on Tatum to see what he does. The actor does not disappoint, coming up with physical bits of humor that hint at an untapped flair for comedy (Tatum also gets the movie’s best verbal gag, something having to do with Cate Blanchett, which takes a few seconds to sink in).
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If 22 Jump Street doesn’t come off quite as you-gotta-see-this hilarious as the previous film, that’s because we’ve been here before, so the novelty is gone. The miraculous thing is that this follow-up works so well, even though, as promised, the movie is practically identical to its predecessor (right down to a hilarious drug trip). There’s a running joke that never gets old about how the heroes have a bigger budget, because sequels to profitable movies always get bigger budgets, and the film makes great use of the extra cash. Instead of a prom, the big finale takes place at an outdoor spring break bash in Puerto Mexico, where there’s a bar called “Gringos Pendejos.” The camera doesn’t focus on it, but the name is there for those who are paying attention. There’s something going on at the edges of the frame in practically every scene of 22 Jump Street, a testament to the care and attention to detail Lord and Miller bring to this potentially silly material, and Hill and Tatum take care of holding the center. The chances seem slim, but here’s hoping we get a 23.