The best thing about 22 Jump Street, besides the fact that it is very funny, very often, is that the way it so fluidly conforms, plays with and skewers the sequel formula in tandem. Time after time, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are told, “Just do the same thing as last time and everyone will be happy.”
That would usually be sound advice that would lead to the usual high box office and disappointed critical response of a hit comedy sequel. You know, like The Hangover Part II, which almost nobody I know enjoyed, but made approximately umptillion dollars at the box office. (Use of the word “umptillion” gets extra punch when it is read in the voice of an excited Jerry Lewis.)
What 22 Jump Street does is play to these expectations while injecting wry meta-commentary about the diminishing nature of sequels in general. The main storyline is actually pretty common; a nearly identical scenario plays out as the first film but with a subversion of the main character arc. Think Men in Black 2, though this movie is definitely better than that one. But it also manages to tweak that formula by realizing that simply reversing a scenario will not necessarily play out the same way because of the fundamentally different basic character flaws of the leads. So even when we see a familiar plot beat, it manages to put across a different idea.
In many ways the new Jump Street does play around with doing the same thing and who can blame it? The first movie was anarchic alchemy, which would seemingly make it so much harder to tackle a sequel given the impossibility of recreating that feeling of surprise. It took two performers I usually don’t care for and actually making me laugh steadily and hard. It introduced a new side to Channing Tatum that was far more interesting than the wooden performances that constituted his career up to that point. (I’m still dubious of hearing him try to use a Cajun accent, however.) Jonah Hill is the weak point of every film I’ve seen him in, but it’s the least I’d disliked him in any project. Their potent chemistry is still very much in effect.
Along with screenwriter Michael Bacall, we also have returning the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are rapidly becoming filmmakers that I have to watch carefully. 21 Jump Street was another in a long line of rubber-stamped TV show retreads looking to take advantage of a familiar name (and let’s be honest, most of which frankly haven’t done that well on either creative or financial levels, leading one to wonder why it continues to be a trend.) The Lego Movie was probably the worst example of a vapidly commercial “concept” ever conceived, taking the idea of name recognition to its greatest possible nadir, yet Lord and Miller managed to not just produce something viably entertaining, but something with heart, artistic integrity and an idea behind it. And now they’ve given us a comedy sequel that actually works on a level at or near the original while being very satisfying for the fans. I was not a big fan of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (I hated the animation and think it would have been a much more interesting film if they’d gone ahead and used the puppets they were obviously emulating) but it was hardly a disaster like a lot of expanded children’s books. If I was a Hollywood executive, these guys would be the first people on my speed dial for taking terrible concepts and spinning gold with them.
Even better, it doesn’t feel like they’re trying too hard, despite what had to be a very calculated structure that plays with the audience. They manage to have an uncanny knack of choosing just the right moments to stay the course or to zag off in another direction. The story contains lots of surprises, yes. But sometimes it plays right to expectations. In this way, the movie really does keep you guessing, wondering what decisions they will make at any given time. It also doesn’t feel like it’s pandering. They care much more about their characters and getting the jokes right than making a statement. I’ve heard at least one critic express that they should have been “brave” enough to simply make the Jenko character gay since the film’s character interaction plays out very much like a romantic comedy, apparently missing what I see as the point of the whole arc and the fact that it would be completely inconsistent with the characters, which are treated surprisingly seriously in their bid to keep them consistent. The farther they push the subtext, the funnier it gets. Changing the subtext to just plain “text” would ruin the joke. It’s for that reason, the consistency and the way things are held back just enough, that when one of the characters does let loose and go for an over the top, extended scene as Jenko and Ice Cube’s captain each get a chance to do in the later parts of the film, it absolutely kills.
Speaking of which, Ice Cube gets far more to do this go round. He’s used very well and very wisely and he practically steals the whole movie out from under the leads, which is no mean feat. In the first film he mostly served as an entertaining device to unload exposition. In the new film he actually gets to deliver a lot of the tweaks at the workings of a sequel under the guise of exposition. He really sinks his teeth in and I get the feeling he had more fun making this movie than all of the “Are We There Yet?” films combined.
If there’s one weakness in the film it’s the loss of certain players. Amber Stevens is very capable and as a plot device she’s practically essential, (one of the best gags in the movie wouldn’t be possible without her) but she simply doesn’t fit as well into the proceedings as Brie Larson. Of the people I miss, she’s the only one that actually could have been involved without going out of the way to justify their presence. While I’m sure Ellie Kemper, for example, could have been worked into the film, I have to figure there were simply other things they were more interested in doing than the narrative heavy lifting it would take to have her appear. As it is we get a few minutes with Rob Riggle and Dave Franco and, while funny, it is one of the few parts of the film that feel a little unnatural. Instead we get a few new folks making glorified cameos like Patton Oswalt and Jon H. Benjamin.
22 Jump Street isn’t Lord and Miller’s best film this year since Lego came out this winter, but it’s yet another solid entry into their repertoire. It simply feels like most of the choices they made are right on the money, something that so rarely happens in the entertainment industry when studio executives try to “fix” anything that comes out of nowhere to be a surprise hit by getting some fingerprints on future projects. If they’ve been able to parlay an amount of autonomy out of the success they’ve had so far, I am very interested to see what they have up their sleeves for the future. I would not bet on seeing more Jump Street films in that future (they pretty much nuke that option during the end credits to this one) but whatever it is, I’ll probably be in line for a ticket. As it is, I’m giving it the same grade I gave the first film and wouldn’t be surprised if it grows on me even more.
(Three and a half stars out of five)