The Meta Delights of 22 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum deliver an improbably good sequel to an improbably good reboot.

Sony Pictures

Viewers who caught the unexpectedly clever 21 Jump Street adaptation two years ago will recall the impressive devotion (and still more impressive degree of irony) with which the movie clung to formula: the undercover cops in high school, the scourge of a new drug on campus, the headquarters in a deconsecrated chapel. By contrast, the movie’s sequel, 22 Jump Street, opens with something new: partners Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), as adults, staging—or rather trying to stage—a relatively conventional drug bust. The sequence, I think it's fair to say, is at best a moderate disappointment, culminating in a Hill-entangled-with-an-octopus gag that is a pale shadow of his trials with a telephone cord in last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

But just when we fear that this may be shaping up to be one of many, many ill-conceived comedy sequels, 22 Jump Street shows that the joke is on us. That initial mission having proven a flop (by law-enforcement and comedic standards alike), Schmidt and Jenko are called into the office of Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), who informs them—in a magnificently meta twist on his already-meta speech in the first movie—that the new formula isn’t working. He wants them to go back to doing “the same thing again.” Schmidt and Jenko protest (with a nice White House Down joke thrown in for good measure), but Hardy is adamant. The trappings may be different this time—college rather than high school, a different synthetic drug to be tracked down, a new church HQ across the road from the old one at, yes, 22 Jump Street—but he wants the duo back on script: “Same identities. Same assignment. Infiltrate the dealer. Find the supplier.” Having thus rebooted itself as a reboot of the original reboot, 22 Jump Street never looks back—or more accurately, the movie scarcely stops looking back long enough to do anything else.

Self-referential irony is hardly a new gimmick, having served as the underlying premise for such franchises as Scream and Austin Powers, but rarely has it been indulged with such fervor. There are riffs on the last movie’s suspect chart, on the popular/unpopular inversion that took place between the partners, and on Jenko taking a bullet for Schmidt. There are ongoing jokes about the larger budget of this outing (“as if that could double the profits,” sighs Hardy) and whether Schmidt and Jenko should take a break from their relationship to “investigate different people.” Past cast members return for expanded roles (Ice Cube) and brief appearances (Rob Riggle, Dave Franco) alike. There’s even a cameo by—well, I’ll let you guess, but it’s not Johnny Depp.

Fresh gags are rolled out as well, on subjects from Dora the Explorer to Destiny’s Child to Cate Blanchett to Harvey Milk. There’s a wonderfully oblique reference to Annie Hall (one word: lobsters) and arguably the most memorable inter-gender melee since Patricia Arquette corkscrewed James Gandolfini in True Romance.

Like its predecessor, 22 Jump Street is directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) from a script by Michael Bacall (with Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman), who again co-wrote the original treatment with Hill. The result is a sequel that, while lewder and looser than the original, retains its comfortable comic rhythms. Hill and Tatum again display an easy chemistry, and newcomer Jillian Bell is flat-out terrific as the ill-tempered roommate of Schmidt’s love interest (Amber Stevens).

22 Jump Street sags in places, and a few minutes could have been comfortably shaved from its 112-minute running time, perhaps by cutting back on the familiar bromantic complications between the leads. But just as the movie winds down into its preordained conclusion, it offers up one more concentrated dose of hilarity, with a credit sequence that is among the best bits in the film—and one that, hopefully, will lay to rest any question of another sequel. “Nobody gave a shit about the Jump Street reboot,” Deputy Chief Hardy reminded his charges in his precinct-room pep talk, “but you got lucky.” Remarkably, 22 Jump Street appears wicked and winking enough to extend that lucky streak.

But let’s not push it.