Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

One of the many great things about 2012′s film adaptation of 21 Jump Street is its feeling of real affection for the characters, the genre and the art and craft of movie-making itself. Of course it’s also incredibly funny, but the humor benefited at least in part from the very obvious sense of appreciation and awareness. That same sense of casual respect and recognition is present in the creatively-named follow-up, 22 Jump Street, but now it’s extended to include observations on the art and commerce of Hollywood sequels.

That meta-awareness leads to some ridiculously funny and entertaining dialogue and set-pieces, but the obvious intelligence from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (and the trio of screenwriters) make the film’s lapses that much more unfortunate.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are sent undercover to infiltrate a drug dealer and find the supplier on a school campus, but their friendship is tested when only one of them gets in with the cool kids leaving the other to twist in the wind. They’re forced to get past their individual hang-ups over what school was like for them the first time, rediscover what it was that made them such good friends in the first place and then bring down the bad guys through a combination of teamwork and irresponsible shenanigans.

Yeah, it’s a sequel.

The plot plays out almost exactly as it did the first time with the perpetually angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) dispatching the pair to a college campus — inexplicably with the same undercover identities — to investigate and apprehend those responsible for drug distribution and a recent death. This time it’s Jenko who finds a home with the popular kids led by Zook (Wyatt Russell) while Schmidt is forced to “settle” for the oddballs including a pretty art student named Maya (Amber Stevens).

Many of the same beats follow, just with the two roles reversed, and that’s exactly what sequels usually deliver. The difference here, for both better and worse, is that Lord, Miller and friends know better. Where the first film gave brief play to a meta-awareness in its scene featuring Nick Offerman the sequel does what sequels do and magnifies it greatly. Offerman returns here, but his observations about the investigation’s/film’s budget, damage and success (“It’s never as good the second time.”) move beyond his office to include other characters and sequences.

The filmmakers are aware and happily poking fun, and they succeed in delivering several of the year’s biggest and most consistent laughs throughout the film, but maybe they could have gone a step further? Ideally the film would recognize these things and then do it differently, but instead it points them out, does them anyway and moves on to the next one. The script from Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman and a returning Michael Bacall pounds away at these gags in the hopes that we’ll accept their abundance and quality as replacements for fresh thought… and we do because seriously, it’s a refreshingly hilarious movie.

The same goes for the bromance at the heart of the franchise. While the roughly 142 “dick-sucking” jokes from the first film are replaced with a softer edge here (relatively speaking) the riffing on male sexual anxiety continues as the two undergo what amounts to couples counseling and discuss the idea that maybe they “should investigate other people.” It’s all so repetitive on its face and the emotion doesn’t land as strongly this time around, but the script, direction and performances make it work anyway again and again.

All of that said, it would have been nice to see the filmmakers’ awareness of movie stereotypes and tropes extend to the burly Schmidt’s romantic pairing with a bone-thin beauty. Stevens’ performance is fine here, but maybe Schmidt could have found romantic entanglement with someone less traditional, more realistic and still gorgeous. They exist. I promise.

Laughs and structural criticism aside Lord and Miller continue to prove themselves as expert practitioners of all things energetic and fun, and they’ve once again found highly capable collaborators in Hill, Tatum and the rest of the cast. All of the returning players do great work here, but the highlight (among 110 minutes of highlights) is newcomer Jillian Bell as Maya’s straight-faced roommate constantly knocking Schmidt’s non-youthful appearance. Her delivery is perfection. The film also holds attention and focus even as it runs close to two hours thanks to the directors’ trademarked momentum and electric pacing.

Comedy is subjective and hyperbole is blurb-bait, but 22 Jump Street is easily the funniest movie of the year (so far). It overcomes its weaknesses to deliver a rapid-fire barrage of laughs, many of which you’ll probably miss the first time, and they continue on through the credits (to an end-credits stinger). Other areas of the film don’t fare as well, so if the humor doesn’t work for you there’s little else here to make it worthwhile.

The Upside: Very, very funny; meta humor; an abundance of jokes and gags that may require multiple views to catch; best “meet cute” ever; end credits

The Downside: Awareness of sequel tropes doesn’t lead to changes; less emotional satisfaction due to repetitiveness; doesn’t care about dumb plot points; meta could have been taken further

On the Side: Per Kurt Russell, his son Wyatt turned down a role in a Hunger Games film in order to star in 22 Jump Street.

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