The only truly negative thing I have to say about “22 Jump Street” is that Chris Miller and Phil Lord are setting themselves up to eventually become a media punching bag. That's the inevitable ending when someone's on a winning streak, and right now, Miller and Lord are looking like the guys you call when you have a terrible idea but want to make a great film anyway. That's an amazing skill set, and I find myself deeply impressed by each new thing they release.
What made “21 Jump Street” so much fun was that it was completely self-aware. The movie openly made fun of what a terrible idea it is to turn old TV shows into new movies, and it also managed to run some very smart and fun riffs on high school movies and buddy cop films, constantly subverting expectations in a way that I think added up to something that felt very fresh.
That, of course, is the challenge when you then set out to make a sequel to something, because by its very nature, a sequel is going to be less fresh. Miller and Lord did not make the sequel to their animated hit “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs,” and it appears that the sequel to their monster success “The LEGO Movie” will be directed by Chris McKay. So why would they risk making something that feels like a rehash by returning to direct “22 Jump Street”?
So they can make fun of sequels, obviously.
From the second it begins, “22 Jump Street” roasts the idea of sequels. There are so many targets within that larger target that I was sort of impressed at how well they managed to cover all of it. More expensive than the original? Check. Same story only slightly disguised? Check. Artificial tension created to undo whatever character growth there was in the original? Check.
As with the first film, they have more on their mind than just making the sequel joke. This time, they take on the conventions of the college movie, and it feels like both Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are given room to play to their strengths here. They have a great chemistry as a team, but what I find really amazing watching these films is just how much Tatum has embraced this side of himself. I would have never guessed that there was such a big goofy clown heart driving this guy from the first few years of work he did onscreen, but there are at least ten places in the sequel where I missed whatever came after one of Tatum's punchlines. He's got a way of approaching a joke that hits me out of left field almost every time. Jonah Hill is a very precise comic performer, and there are a ton of tiny grace notes to his performance here, small choices that punch the jokes up to another level. Miller and Lord know that these films work best when it's just these two guys pinballing off of each other, and there's plenty of that.
There's also an interesting take on sexual politics running throughout the film, and I honestly thought they were headed somewhere daring with Tatum's character. In the end, they don't quite commit to the idea, but it still feels like the script, written by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, is determined to push the characters into some surprising places. I loved the use of Ice Cube this time as Captain Dickson, and there is one long dinner sequence with Cube that left me sore from laughing. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell have to do a fair amount of heavy lifting as new characters who befriend Schmidt and Jenko at college, and that's always tough in a comedy like this. Stevens is a very appealing performer, but she's not given much to do. On the other hand, Jillian Bell (best known from the Comedy Central show “Workaholics”) hits the ground running in this one, and she steals scene after scene after scene.
I'd hate to give away any of the ways the story builds here, because there are some very conscious decisions made to not only mirror the structure of the first film, but to also play against that first movie in ways that screw with expectations. Suffice it to say that it is a cannily-constructed film, and it does have a bigger “movie” feel than the first film. There are places where they swing for some big jokes that don't quite work, but the ambition is dizzying all the way through.
You need to stay through the closing credits, which are funnier than many full-length feature films, because there is even more at the very, very end of the film. Miller and Lord make it feel like they value every second you spend watching one of their films, and they do their best to pack the film so that you get something out of every minute you give them. I'm sure at some point, these guys will make a movie that doesn't quite work. It happens to everyone. But for now, it honestly feels like there is no more reliable filmmaking team right now if you want to go above and beyond with any idea.
“22 Jump Street” opens in the US on June 13th, 2014.