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22 Jump Street Gets to Poke Fun at Sequels and Make Sequel Money — What a Great Gig

If the 2012 film 21 Jump Street was less a remake of the earnest late ‘80s cop show than a good-natured goof on it, the sequel, 22 Jump Street, goes even further in the direction of unrealism: It’s full-bore camp — a buddy-cop burlesque. The directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, are fresh off this year’s The Lego Movie, and they’re no longer just filmmakers — they’re meta-filmmakers. They create almost nothing from scratch; their talent is for juggling tropes. They hit the same jokes over and over, but they’re smart enough to know which ones will play the fifth, fifteenth, and fiftieth time. Here, the overarching comic idea — the Alpha Gag — is that men of action are, like, seriously into each other. You’re meant to cry out, “That’s so gay!” — but with delight instead of derision. The homo jokes are happily progressive.

Undercover detectives Jonah Hill (Schmidt) and Channing Tatum (Jenko) are two years older, which means they’re unlikely college kids instead of unlikely high schoolers. Last time, they set out to trace the origin of a designer drug that was wacking kids out. This time, they set out to trace the origin of a designer drug that’s wacking kids out. But 22 Jump Street is the type of movie in which before you can say, “It’s a repeat of last time!” Hill says, “It’s a repeat of last time!” and both Nick Offerman (as “Deputy Chief Hardy") and Ice Cube (as the prodigiously surly “Captain Dickson”) give nudge-nudge-wink-wink speeches on the subject of the task force’s bigger budget.

The directors and screenwriters (three credited: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, with Bacall and Jonah Hill getting a nod for the “story,” such as it is) presume the audience reads box-office reports and is schooled in the idea of the almighty Hollywood “franchise.” They get to poke fun at sequels and simultaneously make sequel money, which is a great frigging gig if you ask me.

The first half of 22 Jump Street had my preview audience in stitches, but I laughed more at The Fault in Our Stars; the movie was like a Bob Hope–Bing Crosby picture if Hope weren’t funny and Bing didn’t sing. An opening chase is a mistimed shambles — the relentless quips slow it down. And it doesn’t help that the film sets a record for poorly timed jokes. Early on, someone does a Tracy Morgan impression. Then Schmidt professes an enthusiasm for poetry and his (improbably gorgeous) new girlfriend (Amber Stevens) starts calling him “Maya Angelou.” The worst moment is when Tatum’s Jenko righteously explains that “faggot” is an unacceptable slur on gays. It’s as if Marty McFly came back from the future and sabotaged the script.

But either the movie got better or I got worn down. Maybe both. Jillian Bell — best known for the series Workaholics — materializes as the contemptuous roommate of Schmidt’s girlfriend and delivers a great, rapid-fire series of deadpan putdowns. An agreeably low-key actor named Wyatt Russell plays the golden-locked football jock Zook, who takes an instant shine to Tatum’s Jenko. They give each other moist stares and marvel at how in sync they are. They sit by the goalpost at night and call each other “bro” and “dude.” (I thought they were going to sing a duet.) Ice Cube throws a show-stopping tantrum. There’s a fun shot of the campus at dawn, when rumpled, obviously hung-over young men and women pass one another on the common holding their shoes, heading wearily for their own dorm rooms. At its best, 22 Jump Street is less an action comedy than a loosely plotted revue, and though it’s not as witty as either Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch or Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (in which the directors evinced genuine love for their chosen genres), it’s sure as hell better than a straight buddy-cop sequel. And the ultrameta epilogue (no spoilers) is irresistible — it sends you home on a cloud.

Tatum is a likably modest hunk and a deft comedian, but I’m on the fence about Hill. He so transparently wants to be regarded as a great actor rather than a great clown that he weighs the movie down. His brooding, paranoid persona worked in This Is the End because he seemed to be poking fun at himself. Here, he just seems … brooding and paranoid. The chip on his shoulder that’s visible off-camera is starting to show up on the screen and he should be careful before it grows into a Quasimodo hump of unpleasantness.

Photo: Glen Wilson/Columbia Pictures