Comedy sequels never work. With few exceptions most comedy film sequels tend to play out as mere shadows failing to capture the success of the previous film or end up repeating the same jokes until the audience has simply gotten fatigued. 21 Jump Street, the 2012 reboot of the 80s/90s undercover police procedural sidestepped the stigma of most Hollywood remakes/reboots by opting to execute the series’ core concept, cops undercover as students in a school setting, as a comedy rather than the original’s soapy procedural format. Woven in the execution was a witty commentary on generational nostalgia and a meta-commentary on the film’s production itself being a result of said nostalgia. The result was a rousing critical & commercial success and helped to cement directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) as in-demand filmmakers. Now Lord & Miller have the unenviable task of following up such a breakout hit without falling into the pitfalls most comedy sequels are destined for. What ensues is perhaps the ultimate comedy sequel for our times and possibly the most brutal and honest piece of meta-fictional commentary on the nature of sequels in general.
Told to “do the exact same thing as last time” to ensure that “everyone is happy,” by their superior at the police department (an obvious stand-in for movie executives, given some on-the-nose dialogue) undercover cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are once again set to infiltrate school (college this time rather than high school from the last film) in order to stop the trafficking of the latest synthetic drug. However, Phil Lord and Chris Miller won’t make the same film twice, instead they play and make fun with the expectations that sequels should be content to be more of the same. This is a movie where its chosen form and structure is a joke unto itself. The writers (Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, with Jonah Hill getting a story credit) along with Lord and Miller up the ante with this film not just in terms of scale/budget: everything is funnier, sillier, and meta. The fourth wall doesn’t just break, it is deconstructed. It’d be one thing if the film and its characters were merely self-aware, knowledgeable that they are in a film but, such a joke is commonplace and overdone at this point. What separates a film like 22 Jump Street from something like an Edgar Wright film (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim) or an episode of Family Guy is a willingness not to settle on self-awareness as the joke, but rather using it as a setup for others. The movie occasionally resembles a modern answer to old-school vaudevillian comedic acts in terms of its fast and loose style and knowing-parody. Like improv comedy theater, the film is peppered with throwaway gags and thanks to subtle visual design, elastic editing & cinematography which bends the on-screen reality: the film is like a living cartoon. The movie gets weirder than any of the trailers or marketing suggests but it is held together by a humanity that is noticeably absent from other features attempting a similar vibe.
The central “bromance” between Schmidt and Jenko is played with the sort of heartfelt sincerity that almost runs contrary to the living cartoon that the filmmakers have constructed but it is woven in so well and carries the film and the narrative focus as it becomes less about two buddies partying shenanigans and more about the intricacies of male friendship. Every dialogue between the pair seems almost ripped from every romantic comedy, but it never plays as homosexual panic. The joke isn’t that the relationship can be misconstrued or how it’s not normal, the joke is that it’s simply a sweet platonic love and they’re not quite aware of what’s going on. They just know how close and important they are to each other, the rest of the world be damned.
Also holding the film together is the very formula of the film that it lampoons. Many confuse self-awareness with self-deprecation but like the comically deep friendship between our two “heroes” the film isn’t ashamed of itself. It follows its premise and characters with sincerity and clearly loves its goofy setup and our adorably dumb cast of characters. Hill and Tatum are backed up by a myriad of recognizable faces who each contribute precise comic antics to the picture but it’s really Hill & Tatum’s show. While Hill has long been associated with these types of films, Tatum has truly found a comfort in comedy all while exhibiting aptitude for the ridiculous. Also of note is relative newcomer Jillian Bell (from the cult comedy series Workaholics) whose fast-paced deadpan delivery is wonderfully oozing with the comedic disdain of a Jackie Mason or Rodney Dangerfield. Her skills really shine in a scene that has her playing off of Hill in a sort of parody on the Brad Pitt vs Angelina Jolie fight from Mr. & Mrs. Smith that’s great despite the trailers and ads spoiling it to death. Rounding out the cast are rapper/actor Ice Cube, given a much more substantial role than the previous film, as well as the myriad of recognizable cameos throughout the film.
21 Jump Street seems destined to become remembered as a “classic” comedy film in the same way Airplane or Ghostbusters or the films of Mel Brooks. 22 Jump Street is, without a doubt, every bit as good as the first (arguably better) – and it plays differently enough to make the comparison somewhat unfair. Phil Lord and Chris Miller have done the impossible twice this year: first by making The Lego Movie, a toy-brand cash-in, into a remarkable family film; and now they have made a good comedy sequel film. There is no telling where these filmmakers will go next, though the end credits of 22 Jump Street do jokingly suggest some ideas.
P.S. You really should stay through the credits.