Though nearly all sequels are bad--and comedy sequels are especially precarious--”22 Jump Street” manages to avoid many of those pratfalls by being one of the most self-aware comedies I’ve seen.
Right away, they acknowledge the sequel is a blatant money-grab after the first edition proved such a rousing and surprising success at the box office and with critics. After a drug bust by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill goes awry, their commander tells them things went south because they weren’t doing exactly what they did before. He then instructs them to go and do exactly as they did during the first go-round.
Tatum and Hill protest, noting, “It’s never as good the second time.” Tatum suggests he and Hill become Secret Service agents and protect the White House--an allusion to a role he took in the movie “White House Down”--but he’s quickly rebuked--a reference to that movie’s critical and commercial failure. So, Hill and Tatum head back to Jump Street to be upbraided by their abrasive boss, played by Ice Cube. But, instead of going undercover in a high school like they did in the first film, this time they head to college--ostensibly to crack the case of a new designer drug pervading the campus.
From there, it’s a cavalcade of jokes about modern college life, with both Hill and Tatum showing sharp command throughout of their own personas. For example, early in the movie, Hill becomes a total diva as he tries to “get into character” for an undercover operation. Of course, because he’s been nominated for two Academy Awards, he’s now a serious actor in need of complete quiet as he goes through his method.
(As an aside, I still find it hard to write the phrase “two-time Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill.” Look, he’s a fine performer, but he’s now been nominated for more acting Oscars than Robert Redford or Harrison Ford and as many as Cary Grant. I don’t need to tell you the absurdity of that equation.)
Tatum then talks about how he’s incapable of improvising, and shows his ineptitude with a ghastly Hispanic impression. I really can’t give enough credit to Tatum. When he first broke into acting, I thought he was a no-talent pretty boy, but he’s been steadily proving me wrong, and he deserves enormous kudos for the way he plays dumb in this series. He’s more than willing to be the butt of jokes and have fun at his own expense.
“22 Jump Street” also walks right up to a very provocative and transgressive line with the relationship between Tatum and another male character before ultimately stepping back. Still, even going as far as it does is not something I can recall seeing in any other buddy comedy or action flick.
Both of these “Jump Street” movies exemplify the same thing I saw in “The Heat,” which I absolutely adored; in these buddy comedies, all that really matters is the chemistry of the stars. Tatum and Hill are sublime together, as are Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in “The Heat,” and that’s more than enough for a funny and watchable movie.
Ice Cube also gets one especially terrific scene, melting down at a college parents brunch after he learns his daughter--who is played by Amber Stevens with angelic beauty like a baby Beyonce--has gotten involved with Hill. And, the archvillain, a drug kingpin named “Ghost,” is played by Peter Stormare, who naturally exudes menace. You may remember him as the kidnapper who eventually fed Steve Buscemi into a woodchipper in “Fargo,” the German nihilist who terrorizes Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski,” or as “Slippery Pete”--a rogue electrician who helps Jason Alexander’s “George Costanza” (ultimately unsuccessfully) move a Frogger video game machine in “Seinfeld.”
The film is loaded with in-jokes, all sold with aplomb by the Laurel-and-Hardy-esque duo of Tatum and Hill. It’s also another in the recent string of films to hide more humor in the credits--so don’t leave the theater or turn off the movie before the credits end.
It’s better than most of the mindless summer blockbusters we’re subjected to, and it’s practically a quantum leap over most comedy sequels. On the 20-80 scale, I’ll give it a 60, which is “plus.”
Ryan Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan