More is more and is, at times, just right in 22 Jump Street, an exploding pi?ata of gags, pratfalls, winking asides, throwaway one-liners and self-reflexive waggery. This is, of course, the sequel to 21 Jump Street, the 2012 hit that borrowed its title and undercover brother shtick from the old television show best known for its hair-gel hottie, Johnny Depp. For a second time, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play lovable undercover cops who - in between dodging danger and jokes that fly almost as fast as they do on The Simpsons - insinuate themselves into a juvenile population, whose resistance to these charmers has been rendered completely futile, much like that of the movie?s audience.
Submission is one of the foundations of mass culture: If you bludgeon them, they will come. The pop-culture savants behind 22 Jump Street understand this so well that they?ve folded this ethos into the movie, which is bookended by self-amused references to its status as franchise fodder. Schmidt ( Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) enter with their chief, Hardy (Nick Offerman), announcing that they?ve been tapped to reproduce their first success. ?Nobody cared about the Jump Street reboot,? Hardy deadpans, staring at the guys while all but winking at the camera. But because it worked, ?this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going.?
This kind of self-consciousness is a cornerstone of comedy, deployed by everyone from Buster Keaton to Bugs Bunny and Stephen Colbert, and can be usefully self-regarding. (Look at me, folks!) By pulling back the curtain immediately on the sequel, the movie?s behind-the-scenes smarty-pants - it was written by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller - aren?t only drawing on a long comedy tradition, but they?re also helping to inoculate this second installment against predictable criticism. The operative joke in 22 Jump Street, at least initially, is that it?s exactly like the last movie, with the same odd-couple partners, the same support team, the same covert sleuthing and almost the same love interests and on and on.
And so it goes in 22 Jump Street, which returns Schmidt and Jenko to school, this time for a stint in college. There, at the fictional MC State (one billion presumably underserved), the two work their assignment investigating a new designer drug while exploring new interests and friends. Jenko rapidly bonds with a quarterback, Zook (Wyatt Russell), a dumb blond cut from the same cutup cloth as Jeff Spicoli, the stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, while Schmidt cuddles with a fetching young woman, Maya (Amber Stevens). The zingers ricochet amid knowing college-movie clich?s and memorable turns from Keith and Kenny Lucas, as a tag-team duo called the Yangs, and especially a fearless Jillian Bell as Mercedes, Maya?s petulant-in-pink roomie.
As expected, the focus remains fixed on Schmidt and Jones, who take turns doing the Goofus and Gallant bit. Part of what made 21 Jump Street work was the way it played Hill and Tatum?s characters against their off-screen personas: In 2012, Schmidt rode the geek-nation wave and even scored romantically, while Jenko the jock felt the sting of rejection. The new movie somewhat reverses that dynamic even as it continues to milk jokes about who?s popular and not. It?s an odd coupling that still tickles a comedy sweet spot partly because both actors are naturally likable and seem to be having a good time. It helps that they look funny together, resembling nothing so much as a sideways exclamation point, with Tatum?s verticality complementing Hill?s sphericality.
It?s no surprise then that Hill can approximate a cannonball convincingly, yet he also gets mileage out of stillness, as when he drains his face of emotion and widens his eyes, a bit of business that shows how Schmidt is, with total guile, trying to feign guilelessness. At rest, Tatum, with his half-mast eyes and a neck as big as a redwood trunk, can bring to mind Ferdinand the Bull, the Spanish peacenik who prefers to sit and smell the flowers instead of fight. Like a lot of musclemen, Tatum can look almost captive to his body, which makes his grace all the more pleasurable, as in a wittily choreographed fight that?s part jitterbug dance-off, part wrestling match.
Perhaps as befits their increased celebrity, Tatum and Hill spend considerable time apart in the story, which siphons some comedy from the idea that Schmidt and Jenko?s bromance may be going through a rough patch. While Jenko frolics with Zook, Schmidt plays the spurned partner, a setup that allows the movie simultaneously to mock and exploit the conventions of both the traditional romantic comedy and the bromance. As in the first movie, the guiding comic principle here remains the appearance of ironic detachment followed by an assertion of sincerity that?s as appealing as it is disingenuous. It?s a destabilizing strategy that allows the filmmakers to have their cake and scarf it too, as when Jenko rails against a homophobic slur that?s already been deployed.
Much like the jokes about 22 Jump Street being a franchise, this kind of doubling flatters the viewer, who, after being pulled in as a paying customer, is recruited as a comedy co-conspirator. (In this way, the movie, na?vely or not, also mimics the academic idea that fans now enjoy unprecedented control of the production and circulation of popular culture.) You?re in on the joke, which makes the movie something you watch and root for. In the first movie, the Jump Street operation is restarted, because, as Chief Hardy explains, ?The guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas.? That may have registered as a dig at the studio powers that be, but as the sequel affirms, it?s really a smiling affirmation that the guys in charge know precisely what they are doing.