In 22 Jump Street, a pair of mismatched cops is sent undercover to find a dealer who’s pedaling a hot—and deadly—new designer drug at a local school. Complications abound when the narcs attempt to navigate the school’s complex social infrastructure, only to get caught up in the rigid cliques and Breakfast Club stereotypes that form the school’s hierarchy.
If that sounds very familiar, welcome to the running joke that gives 22 Jump Street much of its considerable appeal. Rather than skirt the inherent ridiculousness of making a sequel to an adaptation of a goofy ’80s cop show, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) take ownership of that very criticism.
There’s nothing any reviewer can say about Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy that someone in 22 Jump Street doesn’t point out themselves, beginning with the perpetually angry Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), who chastises our heroes right out of the gate for trying to think outside the box. In 22’s opening sequence, lunkheaded jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) and his nerdy partner Schmidt (Jonah Hill) have the audacity to tackle a case by not disguising themselves as teenagers and infiltrating an upper-class school to take down a drug dealer. Their attempt at creative thinking nets them zero arrests, a stern dressing-down from their boss, and simple instructions for their next assignment: They are to do exactly what they did the last time.
Only this time, they’ll do it bigger (more money, after all), they’ll do it at college, and they’ll do it with cooler stuff. Thanks to the success of their last outing, gentrification has come to Jump Street; the Korean church that first served as their HQ is no more, and Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) has moved his baby-faced squad of undercover narcs to fancier digs at the Vietnamese church across the street. Jenko and Schmidt dust off the high-school identities that served them well in 2012 and enroll as freshmen at MC State, where a student has died after ingesting a drug called WHYPHY. It is, as we’re constantly reminded, exactly like last time.
The filmmakers and cast can get away with such relentless self-deprecation because everyone, including the viewer, is in on the joke. 22 Jump Street is about as meta as a mainstream movie can get. How meta is it? At one point, a suspect shows off his high school–mascot tattoo of a crimson fish and declares himself to be a proud Plainview Red Herring. Later on, Jenko and Schmidt lead the heavies on a vehicle chase across campus, passing in front of the Benjamin J. Hill School for Cinema Studies while Benny Hill-style theme music temporarily takes over the soundtrack.
In other words, it is very freaking meta, and it works more often than it doesn’t. There are times when all that rib-nudging gets a little old, and many of the references will certainly go unnoticed by younger viewers. That’s partly because some of the humor is remarkably film-nerdy, but it’s mostly because people who were born in 1993 are old enough to buy beer now. To Lord and Miller’s credit, though, they understand the number-one rule of comedy: Annie Hall references are hit-or-miss these days, but it is always hilarious when someone gets punched in the balls.
For the most part, the filmmakers know where to draw the line between funny commentary and redundancy. When they come down on the wrong side of the line, Tatum and Hill have their backs. For all the satire and snark, both Jump Street movies work because their stars are remarkably likable. Like its predecessor, 22 mostly revolves around the relationship between Jenko and Schmidt as they’re pulled in different directions by the ever-shifting tides of social pressures. The sequel gets a lot of laughs by playing up the homoerotic subtext of so many buddy movies, but there’s nothing mean-spirited about it.
It’s tempting to say that the sequels-are-dumb joke has played itself out by the time 22 Jump Street is finished doing its very entertaining and ludicrously charming thang, but Miller and Lord save some of the best stuff for the final moments. The closing credits sequence, which features a whack of cameos and imagines a string of sequels, spin-offs, and hilariously ill-conceived merchandising, makes me hope these guys are game for taking the piss out of trilogies.