22 Jump Street knows you think it’s silly that it exists, and it doesn’t even give you time to get mad about it. Jonah Hill and his directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have clearly seen their share of crappy unnecessary sequels, and want to assure us that 22 Jump Street will follow proudly in that tradition while winking and lobbing bombs at it the whole way. This is, like, the exact same movie as the last one, they keep shouting at us, in an aggressive campaign of meta-winking that still manages to succeed because of its stars’ charm.
2012’s 21 Jump Street was a surprise success in that it adapted a property basically no one misses and managed to do a bunch of clever things with it. Hill and Channing Tatum proved to have surprisingly natural chemistry and the “undercover in high school” concept poked merciless fun at our outdated conceptions of jocks vs. nerds, reinforced by a thousand crappy movies. Best of all, Lord and Miller are comedy directors who have a decent grasp on how action sequences should look. This is their second film this year, and their first was the jaw-dropping Lego Movie, which operated in a whole other world of meta referencing.
That self-awareness doesn’t go quite as far in 22 Jump Street. Nick Offerman returns as a grumpy police chief who tells our friends Schmidt and Jenko (now officially bros for life) that they need to solve a drugs-on-college campus case in the exact same way they did last time. Their captain is once again Ice Cube, who guides us through the updated headquarters, boasting about the expanded budget and otherwise reinforcing that our heroes should just do the exact same thing they did last time. Do you get it? You get it. Cube, by the way, has a much-expanded role and is the primary focus of the film's best subplot, a wise choice after his ranting in 21 Jump Street proved such a highlight.
Last time, the joke was that Hill’s character meshed surprisingly well with the cool kids of high school, while Tatum was left hanging out with the dorks. This time they have to reverse it, so Hill is the hanger-on and Tatum mixes with dumb football players. It’s a much less winning combination—a visit to prison to see the old villains (Rob Riggle and Dave Franco) is a cute but sad reminder that the first film had more fun with its universe.
21 Jump Street had a specific goal in making fun of high school movies—our heroes, just like the audience, was so inured with the formula of the thing that they could barely handle their perps being three-dimensional. 22 Jump Street, on the other hand, has none of the same jokes to make about college, and instead leans on lamer, creakier humor. Art students are pretentious! Football players are brainless morons who endlessly pump iron! College students still like slam poetry (do they really?) and perform bad improv (yes, this they do).
The college setting, and the drug-deal mystery, is even more window dressing this time around. Schmidt and Jenko’s relationship is once again center-stage, going through an even more pronounced bad spell before, of course, recovering beautifully for the grand finale. In 21 Jump Street, it was Tatum making the sad hurt faces, this time it’s mostly Jonah Hill. That is a surprisingly big change. There was something so special about Tatum’s handsome Frankenstein monster of a man looking wounded. Hill’s feelings getting hurt feels par for the course.
But this movie basically has three things to offer: meta joking (the movie literally runs out of money at one point, and the closing credits feature a gag about repetitive sequels that is worth waiting for) silly action sequences, and the Hill/Tatum bromance. The two have terrific chemistry, and it’s exploited for many, many jokes about how the partners in crime present to everyone as partners in, y’know, love. If you have seen a Judd Apatow-produced movie from the last ten years, you are aware of this joke. Its deployment is certainly funny at times and somewhat groan-worthy at others. But it may be time to say a eulogy for the idea that it’s so funny that two straight men would be such good friends with each other.
Lord knows 22 Jump Street will open to huge box office this weekend and a 23 Jump Street will be demanded—the film certainly knows it’s a possibility, and includes more than one nod to a ridiculous future film. But Hill, Tatum and Lord & Miller also seem keen to avoid tiring us out too much with the same old formula. 22 Jump Street manages to avoid the problems of so many cookie-cutter comedy sequels—think The Hangover—by refusing to take itself seriously. But it can only stay ahead of itself for so long.