Any doubts about 22 Jump Street disappear in the opening seconds of the film, as “Previously on 21 Jump Street” flashes on the screen and a quick montage repeats the entire previous film. Later as Schmidt and Jenko report to their new HQ they wonder where they’ll be stationed next year, and behind them is a construction site with a banner reading “23 Jump Street Condos Coming Soon.” The film is self-aware and loose and not taking itself the slightest bit seriously.
What it is taking seriously is the relationship between the leads. Die-hard bros after the last adventure, Jenko and Schmidt are inseparable - at least until their new undercover assignment on a college campus (Metro City State College) brings an interloper between them. Jenko meets Zook, a football player and fratboy, and they have an immediate connection on a level that Schmidt can never grok. They like to drink cheap beer, climb things, bang hot girls and party party party. Schmidt drifts away, finding solace in the arms of a student whose family history could cause some complications.
Oh, and there’s a criminal investigation. And it’s just like the first one - a drug with a cute name (“WhyPhy”) that the undercover cops assume is coming from the staff. Just like the first time, a mantra that Nick Offerman’s Deputy Chief Hardy repeats to them again and again. Make it just like the first time.
But Phil Lord and Chris Miller can’t do that, and while they do play with our expectations that a sequel should be just more of the same, they take 22 Jump Street very much in its own direction. Working with a platoon of writers (Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, with Jonah Hill getting a story credit) Lord and Miller take everything one step further. Everything is funnier, everything is sillier, everything is a little more meta than the first time around. The fourth wall doesn’t quite break, but it buckles under the strain (at one point Channing Tatum’s Jenko recommends they go undercover as Secret Service in the White House). The movie could get even weirder than it does, though, because the central relationship works so well.
Tatum was brilliant in the first film, but he’s even better this time around. It’s like he’s found a comfort in this kind of comedy, and he exhibits an aptitude for the kind of graceful physical comedy that nobody does anymore. He’s unafraid of being ridiculous, and he uses his impressive physique to lampoon itself again and again. Jenko is dumb, but in the most endearing way possible, and Tatum sells so many jokes with just his handsome, dopey face you begin to wonder what he could do in a silent movie. I hope Lord and Miller keep working with him, because I wonder if any other directors will be able to get this pure level of comedy from him.
Jonah Hill has a tougher row to hoe; as Jenko is off finding a new bromance with Zook (a magnificently straight-faced Wyatt Russell (yes, Kurt Russell’s son)), Schmidt has a dark night of the soul. The joke is that their bromance is much more of a romance, and as Jenko finds a new boy, Schmidt is jealous and defeated.
That b/romance is handled perfectly; every line of dialogue between the pair is right out of a romantic comedy, but none of it plays as gay panic. The joke isn’t that the relationship is icky, the joke is that it’s all just simply sweet and they’re not quite aware of what’s going on. They’re in love - a platonic love - and they can’t quite recognize it. They just know how close they are and how important they are to each other.
The film's secret weapon is Jillian Bell, who I know best from Bridesmaids but who has a following from the TV show Workaholics. She's got this deadpan delivery that is wonderful, making each of her one-liner barbs - and she has a lot - cut like a surgeon's scalpel. She drips comedic disdain, and a late film kissing fight with Jonah Hill is great despite having been spoiled by the trailers. That's how you know something is funny, when even seeing it in the ads a bunch doesn't kill it.
22 Jump Street hits some college cliches, but generally the jokes come directly from the characters as they drift apart and slowly find each other again. There are lame critical cliches like ‘laugh a minute’ and shit, and I hate them, but it’s hard to write about this film without falling back on them - this movie is a laugh a minute. Maybe more. 22 Jump Street is packed with jokes in a way that is almost unfair; you’re just catching your breath from the last hilarious moment when another comes right at you. I was physically exhausted at the end of the movie, wrung out from laughing so much.
Which was a problem, because the end credits are perhaps the funniest in the history of cinema. Just when I thought I could laugh no more…
It’s really important to note that besides being punishingly funny, 22 Jump Street is extraordinarily well made. You can see some of the seams - the investigation seems to be happening in between scenes, and Schmidt and Jenko just keep getting information from nowhere - but they add up to spectacular action and comedy set pieces, including a split-screen chase at the end. Lord and Miller aren’t just pointing and shooting, they’re using the camera for comedy, and this is a movie that is so dense with visual jokes and small bits that it’ll reward a half dozen reviewings.
22 Jump Street is, without a doubt, better than the first - which is already a movie I consider a modern comedy classic. By doubling down on the chemistry between Tatum and Hill (and by giving Ice Cube a lot of room to be amazing), 22 Jump Street gets deeper and funnier than the first movie. It is, simply put, absolutely awesome.