Critic's Grade: B+
In addition to being one of the most surprisingly funny comedies in recent memory, 2012's 21 Jump Street was one of the most self-aware movies to come along in some time, a film that openly mocked the fact that it was a retread of a long-forgotten, cornball '80s cop show. Unlike, say, the Starsky and Hutch reboot—which simply relied on '70s wigs and ham-fisted attempts to be tongue in cheek—the Jump Street reboot managed to lovingly eviscerate its source material while also lampooning high-school culture and action movies.
So it only makes sense that the hilarious 22 Jump Street isn't simply a sequel. It's a sequel about sequels, and in the action genre that means two things. First, everything has to be bigger: The set pieces need to be explodier and the stereotypical angry police captain has to be angrier. And second, it needs to essentially be the same movie, only much, much bigger.
And so we have dipshit cops Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) still in the throes of their homoerotic bromance, this time going undercover as the world's oldest-looking college freshmen. Once again, they're trying to track a syndicate selling a weird designer drug that is making the rounds among the student body. Once again, one of the cops falls in with the cool kids, while the other feels neglected. "It's the same fucking case," barks Ice Cube's snarling captain in one of many winking meta gags about the repetitive nature of sequels.
And while the film does go through the requisite sequel beats—right down to the mandatory drug freakout and an appearance of Rob Riggle, the original's now-dickless villain—22 Jump Street is very nearly as fresh and fun as the original.
A lot of credit goes to returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who pulled off a miracle earlier this year by turning the would-be product-placement nightmare of The Lego Movie into one of the most energetic animated films in a while. Here, the duo turns the world of Jump Street into a cartoonish comedic landscape populated with enough throwaway sight gags to fill an entire season of The Simpsons, including a well-placed Benny Hill homage during an amped up campus car chase.
Hill and Tatum, meanwhile, prove to possess a comic chemistry on par with James Franco and Seth Rogen. Five years ago, if anybody suggested that Tatum would emerge as a gifted comedic actor, they would be met with guffaws. But Tatum has established himself as a total riot. His Jenko is a doofy geek in the body of a Chippendale dancer, and Tatum nails the character's weird combination of bro and nerd, especially when he begins an odd courtship with a popped-collar footballer (Wyatt "Son of Kurt" Russell) who may just be his soul mate. His sudden mastery of parkour—the default action-sequel action cliché—is played hysterically during the action sequences, while his dumbfounded sweetness and desire to please—his misunderstanding of the lessons of his human sexuality class are particularly earnest—make the character endlessly endearing.
Hill, meanwhile, instills Schmidt with a neediness that adds dense layers to the bromance that unfolds. A walking teddy bear stuffed with insecurity, Schmidt—who in 21 ended up falling in with the cool kids—follows his partner around like a sad puppy, and his confusion as he traverses the modern college landscape is hysterical. A sequence where Hill is forced to perform slam poetry at a hysterically over-the-top open mic night stands out as a highlight of the actor's surprisingly diverse filmography, and his frequent relegation to the "walk of shame" after being rejected by women and bros alike is brilliant in its ability to elicit laughs and pity in equal measure.
Like its predecessor, 22 Jump Street is far more subversively funny than a seemingly throwaway reboot of a shitty '80s cop show has any right to be. The rapport between the leads is pitch-perfect—augmented well by the appearance of go-to sequel villain Peter Stromare and comedienne Jillian Bell as perhaps the bitchiest college roommate of all time—and the direction is so vibrant that the film could have been silent and remained riotously funny Of course, if it was silent, we wouldn't hear the dick jokes, which are just remarkable.
22 Jump Street gets tremendous mileage from jokes about how it's simply a retread of its predecessor. Thankfully, it's not. But even if it was, it would still be one of the most enjoyably light and surprisingly sweet comedies of the year.