Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube
Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “The LEGO Movie”)
Written by: Michael Bacall (“21 Jump Street”), Oren Urizel (debut) and Rodney Rothman (“Grudge Match”)
At this point it is almost common knowledge that 2012’s big-screen version of “21 Jump Street” should not have worked at all. A comedic spin on a late-‘80s undercover teen crime drama starring a young Johnny Depp, the film starring the schlubby Jonah Hill and the beefcake-y Channing Tatum went on to become a hit with both audiences and critics. With success comes sequels, and when it comes to “22 Jump Street,” what is the approach? In the hands of Hollywood’s hottest directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the answer is a brilliant and hilarious deconstruction of just what a sequel is made of.
Unlike how “Muppets Most Wanted” earlier this year acknowledged the diminishing returns of sequels in an opening number that amounted to the cleverest thing in the whole movie, “22 Jump Street” merely flirts with breaking the fourth wall by camouflaging all of its talk on the nature of sequels in the trappings of another police assignment that happens to resemble their first adventure. This time around, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) must infiltrate a drug ring at a local college dealing “Whyphy,” a mix of Aderall and Ecstacy responsible for the death of a female student. Along the way, Schmidt and Jenko fall into patterns reminiscent of their first undercover assignment, only this time it’s happening in a college setting.
Much like Lord and Miller’s “The LEGO Movie,” the plot of “22 Jump Street” is merely a framework to hang metatextual jokes and references on. There are no real surprises to be had when it comes to figuring out who the drug dealer is this time around, especially when monologues from Ice Cube’s and Nick Offerman’s police captains basically spell out just how the plot and interpersonal conflicts between Hill and Tatum will unfold. The film is a near-masterpiece of subversion – earned by Lord’s and Miller’s box office pedigree – that would be impressive enough even if the movie wasn’t as funny as it is.
The laughs work on multiple levels, from the pure physical humor of Hill and Tatum, the dim frat-boy antics of Jenko’s new would-be soul mate Zook (Wyatt Russell), or the meta-humor maybe a third of the audience will laugh at, like a reference to red herrings or an over-cranked car chase taking place in front of the Benjamin Hill Film studies building. Perhaps sensing there’s not much else to wring out of this premise, Lord and Miller button the end of the film up with dozens of clips of would-be sequels. While I’d be fine with this being the curtain call for the Jump Street gang, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see Hill and Tatum continue their adventures in culinary school or a prestigious dance academy.