Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: 22 Jump Street

by Patrick Bromley
A movie that shouldn't have worked but did gets a sequel that really shouldn't work but does.

2012's 21 Jump Street was one of my favorite studio comedies in recent years -- a terrific mix of the buddy cop genre I hold so dearly, great character work, a whole bunch of inspired jokes and a script with slightly more on its mind than just making us laugh a lot (which it does). It was also a surprise success, so it stands to reason that a sequel be put immediately into production. Thankfully, the smart people involved with 22 Jump Street -- directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill (plus several others) and stars Hill and Channing Tatum -- recognize that the only thing worse than a big-screen adaptation of a forgotten '80s TV show is a sequel to a big-screen adaptation of a forgotten '80s TV show.

While the original 21 Jump Street had some self-referential jokes -- mostly courtesy of Nick Offerman's character explaining that no one will care about Jump Street reboot -- the sequel goes full-on meta. There are jokes about being a sequel, jokes about being based on 21 Jump Street, jokes about familiar movie tropes (a "red herring" one is particularly inspired). It's more about being a movie than it is what it's about.

That's ultimately ok, because the jokes work. The movie is funny beginning to end.
Picking up just after a "previously on" recap of the first movie, the sequel finds Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) botching a bust and being reassigned to doing the EXACT SAME THING AS BEFORE (emphasis the movie's, not mine) -- they're to go undercover at college and find the supplier of a dangerous new drug called WHYPHY (Work Hard Yes, Play Hard Yes). On campus, Jenko befriends the college quarterback (Wyatt Russell, son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) and finally gets the chance to live out his football fantasies, which Schmidt falls through the cracks -- though not before becoming romantically linked to a cute art major (Amber Stevens), who is more than who he suspects her to be.

So, yes, the big gag of the movie is that its plot beats are identical to the last outing. It holds true to that formula until it doesn't, taking enough small departures and variations so as not to feel like a complete rehash the way something like Anchorman 2 does. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller continue to apply their animation approach to live action, packing the frame with all kinds of jokes -- verbal jokes, visual jokes, pop culture jokes, meta referential jokes, jokes both lowbrow and highbrow. 22 Jump Street is the kind of comedy that keeps finding new ways to be funny, and the movie's breathless energy and sense of invention ensure it is lively and engaging even when it's covering familiar territory...on purpose, of course.
Once again, Channing Tatum is the movie's secret weapon. Even without taking us off guard this time around -- we know he's funny and we expect it -- Tatum gets all the biggest laughs in the movie by being very sweet and very sincere and never going for a laugh but rather letting the laugh come to him. Contrast that with Jonah Hill, who is once again fine as his partner (and gets a couple of huge laughs) but who pushes and pushes while Tatum sits back and underplays. Part of that is inherent in their characters, but part of it is just Hill's comic style. He hasn't really underplayed a part since The 40-Year Old Virgin.

Together they're very funny, and the real charm of the movie is in the chemistry between the two stars. Tatum and Hill have a relaxed ease to them (as relaxed as Jonah Hill can be) and seem to actually be friends. When most buddy comedies try to create conflict out of having the two main characters bicker, it's nice to see one that's all about supporting your best friend and trying to bring out the best in one another. Despite all the raunchiness and swearing (everyone curses in the movie a lot, especially Ice Cube, who gets way more to do this time around), the two Jump Street movies are, at their center, incredibly sweet.

There are scenes and jokes that I was playing over in my head before the end credits finished running (speaking of the end credits, they are terrific and funny and basically squash the idea of doing future sequels). It's that kind of movie -- the kind in which certain gags stand out more than the whole. The original movie took the opportunity to say some interesting, smart things about young people, whether it's the way they self-identify or the way it has become cool to be more socially conscious or, best of all, the way a generation ought to respect itself more. 22 Jump Street is far more insular, too busy looking inward at itself as a sequel to bother observing or critiquing anything about the outside world. The only thing the movie is interested in critiquing is other movies. Or itself.
Between this and The Lego Movie, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have directed two of the funniest movies this year (I would say funniest, but They Came Together is out in a few weeks). After sitting through a string of trailers for upcoming comedies that appear to range from lazy to staggeringly incompetent, it's nice to see these filmmakers put so much care and effort into making a comedy that never coasts and never takes the easy way out -- even when, this being a sequel to a very successful comedy, that would have been the obvious thing to do.

Is 22 Jump Street as good as the original? Not quite, but that's a tall order. The first movie had the benefit of being a wonderful surprise -- it was a stupid idea that had no business being as smart or funny as it was and offered us the chance to watch Channing Tatum become a movie star during its two hour running time. It benefited from low expectations all around. But because it was so funny and so successful, we're all going into the sequel expecting greatness, which the movie never quite achieves. It's still very clever, layering both jokes and levels of meaning into every scene to make a movie that works, as I'm fond of saying, by being both the thing and about the thing.
Comedy sequels are almost never good. 22 Jump Street is smart in the way it admits upfront exactly what it's doing, then spends the rest of its running time exploring and subverting the tropes of sequels -- it's a lot like Gremlins 2 in that way. I'm reluctant to call it the BEST comedy sequel EVER MADE (as I have seen written elsewhere), because the movie did just come out this weekend and let's maybe sit on it a while before we immediately crown a movie KING OF ALL TIME. In a class where the bar has already been set very low, it is a very good, very funny comedy sequel. Maye we can all just be happy with that.

Something cool!


  1. Nice Patrick! I too really enjoyed 21 Jump Street and was expecting it to be awful. Looking forward to this one. Did you know that Amber Stevens is the legendary Shadow Stevens' (Hollywood Squares announcer) daughter?!

  2. First off I agree with you Patrick that this is a really funny movie and Channing tatum and Jonah hill make a great combo again. Having said that I've noticed a trend with comedies this year that most of them are pretty sloppy with their stories and the flow of the movies hasn't been very well constructed and that they just sort of throw random scenes together just to get from point a to point b and mostly focus on trying to jam alot of jokes in. 22 jump street does this a little less than some others but I couldn't help but feel that they could have done some things better. The drug story has no real stakes, Schmidt and Jenko aren't very good cops ( they mostly stumble right into leads for the case and they never do any real police work to solve the crime so it's hard to believe they would actually still be on the force.) and then there's the coincidence that the girl Schmidt is dating has a secret that while is pretty funny, still feels very sitcomy. And I know the whole joke is that they are doing the same story as the first one and while that's kinda funny I would have preferred them going to college and doing a different case that I atleast cared about them solving a little bit. I did laugh at the other meta jokes (although the end credit sequence bit went on too long and it stopped being funny) and there's alot of smart things that jump street does. I just wish it was a little smarter on some other areas. I still had a good time though and got some great laughs out of it. Thanks for the review Patrick.

  3. Awesome - I was hoping for YOUR review for a better idea of where I'm going to stand on this as the only other review I've read so far was middling (though a quick check on RT - ugh - shows it's doing very well). Loved the first one - which I might not have even watched were it not for your review - and was cautiously optimistic about this one.

    I LOVE the fact that they aren't constantly shitting on each other - I hate when it's non-stop bickering and then like one scene that shows that they really care - such a boring dynamic. Riggs/Murtaugh are still my favourite duo for striking the perfect balance of smartass remarks and a genuine friendship, but Schmidt/Jenko are pretty close!

  4. I'm mostly in agreement with Patrick on 22 Jump Street and would actually say I kind of like it better then the original (although I didn't love the original as much as most people.) However the pacing of the movie did lag a little in the 3rd act but overall things never got too long in the tooth. The end credit bit did go on a while longer then needed but I like how its basically a way of saying "The studio can do what it wants but Lord and Miller are out of the Jump Street franchise."

    One weird thing, the football coach on the team (played by Bob's Burgers Bob Jon Benjamin) is he playing the same football coach he played in Not Another Teen Movie? Did anyone else notice that or am I alone?