Directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller have done it again.
In the realm of sequels, everything is risky business. Crafting a follow-up to a hit, or even a modest hit yet fan favorite, is tricky across all genres. We’ve seen the full range, from inspired continuation to franchise destruction, throughout cinematic history and most often it’s hard to gauge which of that kind you’re going to get until the sequel presents itself in front of you. For instance, who knew that The Dark Knight was going to be a widely game-changing film, let alone a major step up to Batman Begins? Meanwhile, there have been lists upon lists chronicling the worst sequels of all time, and you have to look no further than the genre of comedy to really mine up some of Hollywood’s biggest flunks. Off the top of my head: Scary Movie 2, Men in Black II, Evan Almighty, Be Cool, Look Who’s Talking Now, The Nutty Professor II, Major League II, Airplane II, Blues Brothers 2000, Caddyshack II, even Ghostbusters 2 has left the once promising franchise in limbo. Looking for comedic lightning to strike twice is arguably the hardest assignment in Hollywood, but in the hands of the aforementioned directing duo, the newest comedy sequel to hit the block is maybe the finest yet. For all that I enjoyed about Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Lord & Miller’s 22 Jump Street is an infallible accomplishment worthy of far more recognition.
But accomplishments are nothing new for Lord & Miller, who’s short yet impressive directing résumé now includes four of the most unlikely comedy hits to come out in the last five years. Following the unfair cancellation of their very-ahead-of-its-time Clone High, a surprising adaptation of the Barrett picture book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, set them on a collision course with more adaptable material: Fox’s legendary Johnny Depp-starring cop comedy, 21 Jump Street. With a script written by Michael Bacall, based on a story by co-star Jonah Hill, the directors made their directorial debut to the tune of just under $140 million domestically, high critical marks, and they managed to transform Channing Tatum into a head-turning comedic presence. With those kinds of superlatives, the green light for a sequel was practically immediate.
And the sequel is one that stands proudly alongside its predecessor. 22 Jump Street reunites us with “younger”-looking cops Jenko and Schmidt (Tatum and Hill), who have migrated from the Korean Church on Jump Street to the Vietnamese one just opposite, hence the address change. Per the usually foul-mouthed and aggressive orders of their unit commander, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), they head off to the local state college in search of the supplier for a new kind of drug called “WhyPhy” (pronounced like Wi-Fi). What follows is more or less a repeat of the original’s structure and character developments, but with moderations that range from very slight to cleverly outright. However, as viewers will see, the decision to not make many derivations from the system that made 21 Jump Street so spectacular is not because of hesitation but because of confidence. 22 Jump Street thrives on its self-awareness much, much more than 21 ever did. Through a meta-monologue given by Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman), this is a movie that knows how lucky it is to even exist, since so many doubted the success that awaited the original, but it is going to utilize that tongue-and-cheek tone to attack the bombacity of big-budget action movies and the showing seams of so many fumbling movie sequels. It might have been the intelligently placed genre and trope deconstruction that made me fall in love with 22 Jump Street, but the laughs that come forth over the ensuing 112 minutes should be more than enough for a casual audience.
I’m going to avoid unveiling any jokes here because excited viewers should have the same luxury that I had of going in mostly blind (I read zero reviews and watched just a single trailer), and while the movie is surely more fun to discuss because of how funny the jokes are and how unexpected the purposeful expectedness manages to feel (you’ll see what I mean), it’s truly cruel to take away that joy from anybody. But as for the meta element, that’s something I can talk about vaguely. It’s the movie’s greatest power; ‘meta’ is a witty, tonal prevalence that has made a major surge in filmmaking recently, and filmmakers are finding new and exciting ways to capitalize on self-awareness. While directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller didn’t write this script (Bacall returned with Hill to work on the story), they are still some of the leading minds in instrumenting metatextual ideas into a high-concept piece of work. For anyone who saw The Lego Movie (a film that the two of them did write), more proof isn’t needed.
But from a visual standpoint, Miller & Lord have a better grasp of how to visually manipulate a punch line, or how to suddenly turn something straightforward into something side-splitting. They’re working with a far bigger budget this time around (so the explosions look real and the action sequences feel a little neater), but that also allows them to take a smirking swing at Michael Bay’s OTT style of action photography, namely one expository montage when the story has our heroes slightly globetrot down to Mexico and we get sweeping shots of the sun-baked coast line. Plus, the college setting gives them more room for stylish camerawork, beginning with alluring movements on a football field mid-game to a mid-movie car chase all over the campus. Better yet, there are so many times when the movie feels like it could have slipped into being much sillier, say in a different filmmaker’s hands. But Miller & Lord never let the movie slip through their fingers, and by incorporating minorly cartoonish sight gags, it reminds us of their animated beginnings (and perfections, i.e. Lego). Along with balancing the incredibly meta-tone, Miller & Lord have really shown their underdog capabilities; they are the kings of Hollywood deconstruction.
Now if you were to tell me just four years ago that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum would co-lead a feature film reboot version of a long expired Fox television show that starred a then-unknown Johnny Depp, and that it was going to be a major hit, critically and financially, I would have said that that was about as unlikely as Jonah Hill himself becoming a multiple Oscar nominee. Funnily enough, both of those things have happened in the interim. Hill showed major promise as a comedy performer all the way back in the days of Accepted, before Superbad and Get Him to the Greek solidified him as a justifiable lead. Tatum, on the other hand, never had a role that proved he was worth considering at all. The Step Up star was regarded for his good looks but panned for his unidentifiable performance abilities and boring screen presence. In terms of comedy, Hill was in a much better place than Tatum, but only because that’s all we had really seen him do. It’s amazing how things change. Two Oscar nominations later, Hill has gone through a renaissance of sorts (not to mention the weight fluctuations that will surely be a touchstone of his legacy) and Tatum has found his way in front of a camera, surely due to the influence of director Steven Soderbergh who has worked with him three times (and with Foxcatcher due out in November, he’s found himself in very early awards-related conversations). Needless to say, the idea to pair them up for 21 Jump Street was an inspired decision, and their return to each other’s sides in 22 Jump Street puts their delectable chemistry back on display. Their rapport, in all emotional contexts, is perfect and this movie solidifies their necessity to one another in this partnership, both on screen and behind the scenes (oh yea, and the ending credits, be sure to stay through them all…they’re the movie’s ‘cherry on top,’ saved just for last.)
And without looking to spoil anything, no 21 Jump Street sequel could be complete without a creatively designed drug tripping sequence, and the way Tatum and Hill commit to this scene alone is enough reason why nobody else could have been cast in these movies.
But before we wrap, surely the film isn’t flawless. The absence of Brie Larson leaves much to be desired, while newcomers Wyatt Russell and Jeremy Tatro hardly fill the void left by Dave Franco (who appears in one all too brief scene, along with Rob Riggle). Also we have Peter Storemare, of Fargo fame, taking on an all-to-familiar role of villainy. But amidst a resoundingly hilarious comedy sequel to a film that, under pretty much any other circumstances, would not have been a hit, or very good for that matter, we deal with its shortcomings because the merits are clear and confident ones. 22 Jump Street is a rarity in the field: A comedy sequel that not only makes you pant for air in-between all of the laughter, but makes you strongly consider getting excited for a third go round.
Also, we get much more Ice Cube this time, which, in any other given scenario would be a bad thing, but here…he might be this movie’s standout bit.
Review by Mike Murphy