Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street adapted an ’80s nostalgia property into a comedy about adaptations of nostalgia properties. Fittingly, its sequel, 22 Jump Street, is a comedy about sequels. Like its predecessor, the movie continually teeters on the edge of breaking through the fourth wall.
Told to “do the exact same thing as last time” to ensure that “everyone is happy,” undercover cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are moved into new headquarters directly across from 21 Jump Street, at a Vietnamese church called Resurrection Of The Holy Spectacle. From the opening title (“Previously on 21 Jump Street”) to the closing credits (which showcase imaginary future entries in the “franchise”), the movie mines blockbuster sequels’ tendency to recycle formula while being “way more expensive for no reason” for comedy.
Again, Schmidt and Jenko must pretend to be teenagers to find the source of a synthetic drug. Again, they get over-involved in student life. The slightness of the tweaks—they’re in college now, and Schmidt is the social outcast—becomes a running gag. Whenever Schmidt and Jenko attempt to deviate from formula, they’re told by their superiors, Dickson (Ice Cube) and Hardy (Nick Offerman), to just stick to what they did last time—a tactic that consistently leads them to focus on the wrong clues and the wrong suspects. The budget is constantly invoked; at one point, Schmidt and Jenko are told that “the department”—22 Jump Street’s stand-in for the studio—spent most of their funding on the opening sequence and the new headquarters set, meaning that they have to conduct the rest of “the investigation” as cheaply as possible, which leads to a car chase where our heroes are dismayed to find the villains crashing through increasingly more expensive set pieces.
The movie occasionally resembles a modern answer to the deconstructed musical comedies of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, the zoot suit-clad musicians-turned-comedians whose stage shows were adapted into a handful of schizoid movies—including the cult classic Hellzapoppin’—and the weirdest show of TV’s early years, Fireball Fun-For-All. And true to Olsen and Johnson’s shtick, 22 Jump Street is kind of a mess. Like Lord and Miller’s The Lego Movie, it’s peppered with throwaway gags: a sped-up chase in front of the Benjamin Hill Center For Film Studies; a plot twist involving a sports team called the Plainview Red Herrings; a Mexican tourist-trap bar called Gringo Pendejo’s. Replicating the elasticity of animation in a live-action film takes considerable formal chops. Without them, reality-bending jokes can often feel shambolic.
Ironically, 22 Jump Street is kept together by the formula it ceaselessly mocks. Hill and Tatum’s well-developed comic personalities and overtly emotional relationship give shape to the jokes, and the latter’s sweet-natured doofus persona accounts for many of the movie’s best laughs, from his inability to remember the word “library” (“book …place”) to his severely delayed reaction to a plot twist.