22 jump street

Writing/directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller have built an artistic strategy on meta-references. They started their careers in the realm of television with the cult cartoon Clone High, and took the usually TV-bound sensibility of constant self-awareness to their movies. At the beginning of 21 Jump Street, a police chief (Nick Offerman) wryly commented on why anyone would turn the ephemeral ’80s series 21 Jump Street into a movie in the first place. “The guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.” And yet the film was a surprise hit with both critics and audiences. So naturally a sequel was put into production. But making a good adaptation of an old TV show is one thing. How do you make a good sequel to an adaptation of an old TV show?

Lord and Miller’s answer is to parody many of the tropes and cliches that govern sequels. That same police chief is back again, saying that the best way to remain successful is to do the same thing over again. Which is what this movie does, but with many, many winks to the audience. And it also takes fiercer aim at the conventions of cop films and undercover stories than its predecessor did. The result is a breathless barrage of jokes that range from the ribald to the clever with almost no fourth wall separating the events from the audience. At times, it’s too much, and the gags inspire derisive “we get it” reactions instead of laughter. But when it hits, such as in the nigh-on transcendent closing credit sequence, it’s gold.

Cop duo Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back in the Jump Street program after utterly failing at normal police work. Enthusiastically embracing the idea of doing everything the same way it was done during their investigation in the first film, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) assigns them to bust a drug ring at a local university. Schmidt and Jenko enroll as students, but find that their attempts to repeat their old steps aren’t helping them. At the same time, their partnership is strained as Jenko makes friends with the equally numbskulled footballing frat boy Zook (Wyatt Russell), and Schmidt finds himself increasingly left alone, even though he’s romancing gorgeous art major Maya (Amber Stevens).

While it tries to cover it up with its reams of meta humor, the movie can’t escape the fact that it really is just replaying the beats of 21 Jump Street. Sure, the doubled budget means that the action scenes go bigger and more destructive than before, but that doesn’t really amount to much. Again, Schmidt and Jenko’s friendship is tested by their case. Again, Schmidt is wooing a student. A prom finale has been replaced with a spring break finale. The movie’s saving grace is that it’s still extremely funny. The pratfalls and verbal humor hit with terrific regularity. And one edge the film has over its predecessor is giving an larger cast room to shine. Ice Cube gets more to do, to everyone’s delight. Wyatt Russell is extraordinary as the distillation of the dumb jock, his chemistry with Tatum fantastic. Tatum himself continues to come into his own as a comedic performer, the movie exploiting his dim lovability for everything it can. But the secret weapon is Jillian Bell as Mercedes, Maya’s roommate. Bell is a marvelously deadpan dynamo, instantly marking herself as destined for greatness. She does little besides snark about how obvious it is that Schmidt and Jenko are narcs, but the joke never wears out.

One joke that does wear out is the parallel between Schmidt and Jenko’s partnership and a gay relationship. For a movie that takes  a special moment to have Tatum reprimand a bad guy for using an anti-gay slur, it’s weirdly drenched in hipster homophobia. The best example is a scene in which the pair attend actual couples counseling, their interpersonal woes perfectly matching those faced by romantic couples. But the only joke is that it’s like they’re gay, except they aren’t. It’s exhausting.

22 Jump Street is one of the best movies of the summer, and probably one of the best comedies of the year. But try as it might, it can’t live up to the breath of fresh air that was the first film. The end credits suggest that Lord and Miller understand how there’s not really anywhere else to go with the premise without diving into hackworth. Hopefully this means that the series can end here, as two wonderful gems (the second somewhat less polished than the first, but still).