Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller cemented their reputation for turning apparently bad ideas into great movies earlier this year with the triumph of The Lego Movie. Arguably the project of theirs that seemed most destined to fail was a modern reboot of eighties cop show 21 Jump Street. Yet somehow they turned it into a huge success by going the route of a self-aware comedy, aided by the buddy-cop chemistry of its two stars Jonah Hill (also a writer) and Channing Tatum. Making a sequel would seem like their safest move so far, but the track record for sequels to comedies is probably worse than any other genre, so naturally Lord and Miller have managed to buck this trend.
Just as 21 Jump Street gleefully commented on the absurdity of its own existence, 22 Jump Street delights in making any joke you could think of about the redundancy of sequels like this before you even get the chance. It’s opening scene acts as a kind of ‘what could have been’ vignette, in which Schmidt and Jenko attempt to infiltrate a deal involving an infamous drug kingpin (Peter Stormare) only to lead to a massive, destruction filled chase and their ultimate failure. Upon returning to the station, the Deputy Chief (Nick Offerman) informs them that the department believes the reason for this was departing from their original formula. As in the first film, Offerman’s cameo is a hilarious highlight, pointing out that the budget for their operation has been doubled, and the department just wants them to do “the same thing as last time”. Lord and Miller are having their cake and eating it.
They could have treated the opening scene as a straight-forward action set-piece and still have this line pay off, but instead they still cram it with jokes. They continue this approach for the whole movie, the meta-humour might be the best, but Lord and Miller know they can’t rely on it exclusively without growing stale.
Schmidt and Jenko are returned to the charge of Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), whose previous HQ of 21 Jump Street has been bought back, but conveniently there’s another abandoned church across the street they can relocate to! (As they walk across, a sign announcing the upcoming 23 Jump Street condo development can be seen). This time, their assignment is to go undercover at local college to locate the supplier of another new designer drug called “WHYPHY” (Work Hard Yes Play Hard Yes).
Disappointingly, the pair then get involved with some pretty typical college movie antics involving fraternities and ‘pledge rituals’ as Jenko befriends the leader of a popular frat house (Wyatt Russell) while Schmidt, not fitting in there, begins dating an art major (Amber Stevens). Fortunately, 22 Jump Street never dwells on these elements for too long, keeping the plot moving at a brisk pace. It never shys away from acknowledging that it’s repeating the exact same plot of the first film, as a rift forms between the two partners, but the situations rarely feel like a re-tread.
Lord and Miller keep the jokes coming thick and fast throughout 22 Jump Street, far more of which hit than miss (only a reappearance from two of the first film’s villains feels like a big misstep). Even when it takes a well-worn comedic plot development involving Schmidt’s girlfriend, there’s laughter to be found in its fresh treatment of it, not in the least from Tatum’s priceless reaction when he realises. Hill and Tatum have refined their comedic partnership, playing off each other brilliantly (Tatum may have really found his calling as a comedy actor). They allow some of the supporting players to take the spotlight too, notably a potential breakout role from Jillian Bell, the sardonic roommate of Schmidt’s girlfriend who constantly points out that he looks nothing like a 19-year old. The directors don’t just rely on their performers, finding humour in any element they can, with their inventive style extending to the movie’s visuals and editing. I still can’t quite decide if they’re using terrible songs on the soundtrack deliberately or not, but’s it’s fair to give them the benefit of the doubt. There’s enough going on in every scene that it will doubtless reward repeat viewings.
Given the barrage of gags in 22 Jump Street, it has allowed itself a very generous running time for a comedy. It does risk outstaying it’s welcome but manages to keep it together. It also saves the best till last; a hysterical credits montage of potential future sequels. As funny as that is, it’s probably best for Lord and Miller to leave Jump Street behind at this point. They’re four for four on movies in their short careers so far, which just leaves me with one question; if they can do this much with bad ideas, what could they do with a good one?