Trying to write a review of 22 Jump Street—which I’ve been putting off for as long as humanly possible—I find myself at a loss. Not because I don’t have anything to say about this sly, self-referencing movie, but because there doesn’t seem to be any need for it. The film is critic-proof, reviewing itself as it goes along. It’s a buddy cop movie about the conventions of buddy cop movies, a sequel about the appeal and downside of sequels, a low expectation summer blockbuster about the low expectations of all summer blockbusters. Basically, it wants to eat its genre parody cake and have it too.
In the first movie, the 2012 hit that borrowed its title and undercover brother shtick from the old television show best known for making every ’80s teenage girl in America and beyond fall in love with Johnny Depp, the Jump Street operation was restarted, Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) explains, because “The guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas.” That may have registered as a jab at the studio powers that be, but in reality it’s a smiling affirmation that the guys in charge know precisely what they’re doing.
Made by the creators of a series of self-aware blockbusters, including 21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and this year’s The Lego Movie, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s latest is an exploding assemblage of gags, pratfalls, winking asides, throwaway one-liners, and self-aware jokes. Some of it feels so artificially, meta-humorously obligatory, aiming only to recreate the original in detail, only bigger and more expensive. But there’s no need for me to accuse the filmmakers of paint-by-numbers plotting; they make that case for me. In the process, 22 Jump Street successfully inoculates itself against criticism. It anticipates any objection or observation you might make about it as a film and makes it first, with a shrug and a grin. What almost saves it is that sometimes this commentary is original and lively, even ecstatically silly.
The plot is basically a Xeroxed copy of the first film, the only difference being that it swaps high school for college and prom for spring break. After letting a wanted kingpin (Peter Stormare) slip through their hands in the opening scene action setpiece—a hilarious episode that builds to a great, Harold Lloyd-worthy bit of death-defying slapstick with a touch of Laurel and Hardy in the juxtaposition of Jonah Hill’s short, stocky inertia against Channing Tatum’s chiseled, gravity-defying grace—bumbling cops Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are sent back to school, to do what they do best, pose as students to bust a campus drug ring whose newest designer pharmaceutical has just claimed its first life. “Do it just like the last time,” the cops’ surly commanding officer insists.
And just like the last time, 22 Jump Street gets some mileage out of pairing the tall, beefy, athletic Jenko with the doughy, short, schlubby Schmidt. It’s an odd coupling that continues to tickle a comedy sweet spot, especially as the two go their slightly separate ways, reversing the first movie’s dynamic so as to place Jenko in the role genetics intended for him, that of the popular superstar, and Schmidt as the clumsy, socially awkward tag-along. Tatum’s character becomes a football star and bros up to key suspect Zook (Wyatt Russell), his quarterback soulmate. While the two fratboys get busy appreciating each other’s alpha male awesomeness, Schmidt falls for smart, beautiful art major Maya (Amber Stevens).
The movie acknowledges its own ridiculousness, starting with the absurd assumption that anyone would ever believe Jenko and Schmidt were regular, 19 year-old students. “Tell us about the war,” Maya’s roommate (Jillian Bell), a witheringly, wonderfully sarcastic bitch, tells Schmidt, “any of them.”
Lord and Miller dive deep into the leading characters’ bromance, and all that homoerotic energy that bubbles under the surface of action buddy films is brought out for some air. Before long Schmidt and Jenko are talking about how maybe they should start investigating other people in a hilarious breakup conversation adapted to police jargon. “You want an open investigation?” Schmidt asks unbelievingly, tears already welling up in his eyes.
The actors are brilliant together. Hill knows how to milk Schmidt’s hurt feelings for laughs instead of fake pathos, and it’s a real testament to his gifts that he doesn’t overplay the sad-sack routine. But it’s Tatum who seems especially boisterous and joyful here, like a mischievous first grader trapped in a linebacker’s body. The actor has an astonishing gift for playing dumb goodness, turning Jenko into the biggest, brawniest puppy in film history, a human version of Ferdinand the Bull, who would rather sit and smell the flowers than fight.
The college scenes are hit-and-miss, with a loose, improv-comedy feel. 22 Jump Street hits more often than not, but even when it misses by a mile you have to appreciate the effort. Almost worth the price of admission alone is Schmidt’s impromptu participation in a slam poetry open mic night (sample lyric: “Jesus cried. Runaway bride!”). And that’s if you don’t count the wry Annie Hall homage in the opening credits and its unexpected development later on, some of the greatest split-screen gags I’ve ever seen—including a laugh-until-you cry Duck Amuck-inspired extended drug trip—and a centerpiece with Ice Cube that just about pays for every dumb Are We There Yet? comedy on his résumé.
But the most enjoyable pleasures of this paean to summer silliness are the small ones, like when the big, dim Jenko tries to cut a pane of glass with a laser pointer, that almost audible little “ping” that sounds when he finally grasps a crucial change in the relationship between Schmidt and Ice Cube’s hardass Captain Dickson, or when, breathless and bursting with excitement over his sleuthing skills, he informs his partner you can get the drug anywhere on campus, at any time. The fact that it’s called Why-Phy (Work Hard Yes, Play Hard Yes) and pronounced exactly like the wireless internet never burdened his otherwise blissful mind.
“Nobody gave a shit about the Jump Street reboot,” says Dickson in an early scene, the first of many, many, many times when a character speaks about the fictional, undercover crime-fighting operation in ways that clearly refer to the movie itself. But because the reboot was so successful in the story as well as the real world box office, Ice Cube’s character continues, “We doubled the budget, as if that would double the profit.” The film comments openly about repeating old formulas and the perks—and imprudence—of working with a larger (but not unlimited) budget. It’s “always worse the second time around,” the chief warns the two men, who are now given “carte blanche with the budget, motherfuckers.” Operation headquarters is “twice as expensive” as the one in the last movie “for no good reason.” About halfway through the film Jenko and Schmidt will decimate a university sculpture garden and robotics lab, all the while delivering a running commentary on how much money they’re wasting for no discernible purpose.
The guiding comic principle here remains the appearance of ironic detachment followed by an assertion of sincerity that’s as appealing as it is disingenuous. But in the end, the film’s half-earnest acknowledgement that it’s a tiresome sequel doesn’t save it from being a tiresome sequel. 22 Jump Street is wholly part of the status-quo that it’s railing against, indulging in the same clichés it skewers. And hammering us over the head again and again with the admission can get tiresome, too—I lost my patience right around the thirteenth time someone said something about doing it just like the last time.
The final credits sequence is sublime, a sardonic take on all possible sequels the “Jump Team” could ever make (culinary school! flight school! beauty school! ninja school! dance school—taglined “Pointe and Shoot”), complete with merchandise and tie-ins. It almost convinces you that you’re in on the joke, but the joke’s on you. It’s a delusion to think of Lord and Miller as anything other than oil, rather than sand, in the gears of conglomerated entertainment production. The self-amused references to the film’s status as franchise fodder are funny and ridiculous, right? Funny enough to keep taking your moviegoing money for years to come, so see you up the street at No. 23 soon.