It appears to be the case that the directorial duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are sorcerers of some kind. Their first three feature films could be easily described as the sort of dead end corporate franchises (a story light children’s book adaptation, a reboot of a late 80’s cop procedural redrawn as a comedy, and a movie based on a toy) that could not possibly good. This was the domain of Battleship or The Smurfs. But something strange happened: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie were all incisive, witty comedies that played well above their expected quality station. Lord and Miller have cornered the market on rehabilitating doomed pop culture products. 22 Jump Street represents a particularly tough challenge even for these two daredevils, as a sequel to an action comedy that no one thought they wanted in the first place is a perilous concept indeed. Lord and Miller already walked away from a Meatballs sequel, and will not be involved in the second LEGO movie, but something about Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill must have made them come back for one more round of abject silliness.
The authority figures of 22 Jump Street (the returning Nick Offerman and Ice Cube) are not shy about pointing out and demanding continuation of the similarities between this story and its predecessor. They are not off base, as the story is a carbon copy of 21 Jump Street save the environmental change from secondary school to college, and the requisite change of joke scenery. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) are back in the undercover game, once again trying to sniff out the supplier of a dangerous designer drug without giving up the ghost as the narcs they are. Schmidt is still on the socially awkward and needy side of the emotional spectrum, and Jenko is still as dumb as a box of exceedingly dense rocks. This time around, Jenko finds himself falling in with the cool kids (a football frat) with Schmidt relegated to the side, so there is a bit of a superficial update to the formula, thought Schmidt is again the one to find love in Maya (Amber Stevens), whose relationship is complicated by her parentage and a particularly harried roommate (Jillian Bell). It’s the same story, but there is a reason for that.
Lord and Miller, working off a script from Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman have decided to make a sequel that is, at its core, a commentary on the nature of comedy sequels. Doing so has allowed them to deftly deflect the sort of standard comedy sequel mistakes (think of the generally uninspired Anchorman 2) by calling them out as they purposefully make them, winking all the way. Few films are as gleefully over the top as this film often is. What is key, and what makes it work in practice, is 22 Jump Street’s take no prisoners approach to its gags. The modern comedy landscape, heavily influenced by the success of Family Guy and the Adult Swim model, is all about fitting as many jokes as possible onto the screen in the shortest period of time. Lord and Miller are well-suited for this approach, throwing out meta commentaries on sequels right next to the more traditional referential humor (a Benny Hill gag is inspired), physical comedy and sight gags like their very lives depend on it. What matters, of course, is whether these gags hit, and more often than not they do, thanks in large part to its two stars.
Hill and Tatum could not be more committed to these thoroughly absurd, stupid characters, and that unwavering dedication pays off in spades. Hill is no stranger to the scene; Schmidt is really just a grown up version of Seth from Superbad and many of his other comedy roles, so he is more than comfortable working this sort of part. Tatum is an actor who is consistently finding new ways to prove himself to a skeptical audience, and his work as Jenko the second time around is a treat. Playing right into the perception of what most people likely think Tatum is like in real life, Jenko is the ultimate himbo. He is a big, beefy muscle-head with nothing going on upstairs. He is always guaranteed to be the dumbest person in the room, often by a large margin. He plays right into the jock stereotypes with glee, and often finds himself right at the center of the most hilarious moments of the film. One scene in particular, in which Jenko discovers a key piece of information about Schmidt a good thirty seconds after the rest of the room and overreacts to it as much as possible, is a deliriously funny extended sequence, and is only matched by a confrontation between Hill and Bell late in the third act.
In general, the laughs are a touch less consistent on this second trip to Jump Street. Not all of the meta jabs work as well as the best ones, and there are a few times where the eyes start to roll instinctively when they make another joke about doing the same things over and over again. The pace does sag a little in the middle of the film as Jenko and Schmidt establish their roles within the college; since the characters are already well-known by the audience, these sequences do not accomplish as much as they did in 21 Jump Street. In spite of this, when 22 Jump Street bears down and gets serious about getting funny by unleashing an extended gag sequence, it often outdoes the first installment and dishes out some of the best comedy money can buy. These bursts are strong enough to overcome the few weaknesses that pop up from time to time.
22 Jump Street should not have turned out as well as it has. An overt money grab of a sequel coming a few years after its predecessor was a surprise hit at the box office is not supposed to have the energy this film brings to the table. It easily could have been Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, the soulless sequel made without Lord and Miller, but the creative team and its cast clearly was too attached to some too-old undercover cops to let them languish in mediocrity. Much like this weekend’s other major sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, 22 Jump Street is just a little worse than what came before it. But when what came before it was as good as 21 Jump Street, there is room to be a little worse and remain pretty great in its own right. The film’s credits may have theoretically shut the door on making this a trilogy, but the time spent with Schmidt and Jenko has been as enjoyable time indeed.