If there’s any doubt that 22 Jump Street is a cartoon dressed in live-action clothing, it should disappear completely when Channing Tatum’s lovably lunkheaded Detective Jenko is puzzling over an obvious set of connected clues when – DING! – the answer suddenly comes to him. That “Ding” is literal – the sound is just an office noise from somewhere in the formerly abandoned Vietnamese church where his investigative unit is based. But it might as well be accompanied by a light bulb flickering to life above his head, before he begins running excitedly around the office like Yosemite Sam with the seat of his pants on fire, excited beyond measure that for once a thought has survived the leap between synapses.
“Cartoonish” isn’t a criticism here any more than it would be in reference to a classic Looney Tunes short. It just means that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller feel no need to maintain any tether to reality or plausibility in service of a good gag. And these two are never at a loss for good, self-aware gags – like the red herring tattoo emblazoned on a character who is exactly that.
What worked last time, in Miller and Lord’s unexpectedly successful 2012 adaptation of the ’80s cop drama, 21 Jump Street, also works here. That’s part of the joke. Just as that movie made fun of its own existence by calling attention to the ridiculousness of rebooting an already kind of ridiculous TV show about adult cops posing as high school students, 22 Jump Street recognizes its perceived status as a cash grabbing action sequel. Then it mercilessly mocks the tradition it’s becoming part of.
Acknowledging the fact that they’re essentially ripping themselves off allows Miller and Lord the freedom of not having to try to hide it. The setup isn’t just similar, it’s identical: demonstrate that Jenko and his partner Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are screw-ups, send them to the angry Chief’s (Nick Offerman) office for a dressing-down, and then on to their captain (Ice Cube), who continues berating them before sending them undercover to infiltrate a drug ring selling a new designer drug to students. The only difference is that the students that the pair have to pose as this time are in college instead of high school this time around.
Miller and Lord have become so successful because they’re able to make dumb ideas into brilliant comedy simply by acknowledging that audiences aren’t as dumb as the industry often seems to think they are. In any other hands, their Lego Movie could have just been a two-hour toy commercial, big business exploiting children’s creative love of Lego for their own ends. Miller and Lord flipped it into a hilarious critique of exactly that idea.
22 Jump Street plays on expectations – specifically, lowered ones — of sequels just as effectively. That Vietnamese church is right across the street from the Korean church at 21 Jump Street that was the site of the investigation’s headquarters in the previous movie. Next to that site, at 23 Jump Street, there are construction crews already at work on a new building. With the recent announcement that Marvel already has their movie sequels mapped out until 2028, the implication couldn’t be more timely.
Inside the new HQ, everything is glass and computers and ostentatious spending – Iron Man gets name-checked, along with another sequel-heavy franchise, James Bond. The Captain isn’t any more subtle about calling attention to the unit’s (and the sequel’s) newly increased budget than he is about telling Jenko and Schmidt that the assignment is exactly the same.
The plot becomes incidental to the jokes, only existing in service of them. Again, that’s not a bad thing; how many substantively different plots did Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry ever really have?
The “breakup” of Jenko and Schmidt’s formerly solid dude-bond is the central conflict here, as they migrate to different cliques in their new college setting. But that’s really only an opportunity for Miller and Lord to take pot shots at bromance as a genre trend as well as making the subtext of buddy cop movies into text with overt romantic comedy parallels.
If it’s not quite as funny as its predecessor, that’s only because it’s not quite as unexpected. The directors know familiarity breeds tedium, but try to alleviate that by just being honest about it. We know what sequels do and why. They know that we know. What separates 22 Jump Street from sequel mediocrity is that everyone’s in on the joke.