Filmmaking team Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have now made a movie based on a 32-page picture book (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), another one based on a line of toys (The LEGO Movie), a big screen adaptation of a very ’80s TV series (21 Jump Street), and a sequel to the same (22 Jump Street). These are the kind of projects that, when they’re announced, are viewed as signs of how creatively desperate Hollywood has become. Look what they’re trying to making a movie out of now!
But all four of the aforementioned films have been improbably and rousingly good, proof that talented writers and directors can use any material as a launching pad for something entertaining and cinematic. Lord and Miller also have been getting more and more self-referential about making supposedly mindless studio movies, from 21 Jump Street’s constant winking at its cops-go-undercover-in-high-school premise (“You look really old. Were you held back?”) to The LEGO Movie’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too subversion of its giant exercise in product placement.
But 22 Jump Street, which hits theaters this Friday, is Lord and Miller’s most meta effort yet. It’s a movie that doesn’t just continue to poke fun at its own setup, but digs into the conventions of buddy cop movies and franchises, spinning and spinning until it catches its own tail. It doesn’t have the pleasant surprise factor of the first film, but it’s actually even better.
22 Jump Street is, first and foremost, a sequel about sequels. Reprising his role as Deputy Chief Hardy at the beginning of the film, Nick Offerman delivers the equivalent of studio notes to Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) after their attempt at a slightly more standard drug bust goes wrong: “Do the same thing as last time!” It’s a refrain that continues throughout the movie as the dynamic-ish duo goes undercover again, this time as college students.
Schmidt and Jenko are using their old sibling aliases and are still living together, this time in a dorm rather than with Schmidt’s parents. They’re still looking to bust a designer drug ring, with the new product in question being WHYPHY, a combination of Adderall and ecstasy. And one of them gets a little too caught up in the life he’s faking, only this time it’s Jenko, who tearfully notes, “I’m the first person in my family to pretend to go to college.”
How much of an obligation a sequel has toward being more of the same, only bigger, is an ongoing concern of 22 Jump Street. The movie even includes a hilariously unlikely in-universe explanation for its title and at one point suggests a character’s probably the villain solely based on his being the rough equivalent of the villain in the first movie. (He’s not, and 22 Jump Street actually manages to quite deftly balance being a sequel with being a movie in its own right.)
It’s a self-mocking tendency that reaches brilliance during the closing credits, which I won’t spoil other than to note that if 22 Jump Street willed itself into existence with the throwaway punchline of the first film, then the jokes that make up the end of the second suggest Schmidt and Jenko are destined to be around for a long time.
21 Jump Street offered up the twist that seven years after graduating themselves, popular doofus Jenko and nerdy outcast Schmidt discovered their social valuations had switched in a post-Glee teenage world in which the rules for what’s cool were very different. Jenko’s bullying and affected blasé attitude no longer marked him as the top of the high school food chain, while Schmidt’s nice guy quirk won him a spot with the cool kids and got him the girl (Brie Larson, who sadly doesn’t show up in this new installment).
But college, in 22 Jump Street, is the place in which Jenko comes into his own as the ultimate bro. A sweet-natured meathead who’s comfortable with the alpha male crew, he finds frat life fits him like a glove, quickly endearing himself to fellow muscled numskull Zook (Wyatt Russell) — finally, someone who appreciates his choice of accessories, a puka shell choker barely able to wrap around his massive, bull-like neck. Meanwhile, Schmidt finds himself being too clingy for college hookup culture when it comes to Maya (Amber Stevens), the art major he’s crushing on. The reversal happens because, well, it was Jenko’s turn. (“If it’s like the last time, you’re going to have an awesome time,” he observes miserably as they settle into the dorms.)
Women may pass through the pair’s lives, but the Jump Street films are all about the epic, self-aware bromance between its two mismatched heroes, how they actually complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses (the new movie throws around jokily obvious yin-yang symbolism), and how time and social pressure always threaten to part them. They’re basically love stories, just platonic ones.
The unspoken joke of the average buddy action movie is that it involves two macho guys bickering or getting starry-eyed over one another like a married couple, a gag that’s often had a sour edge — see, they’re not actually homosexual — even as recent films have brought this dynamic to more and more exaggerated places. 21 Jump Street did its part playing into this trend, albeit while making the subtext pretty close to the text. For all the yelling of “suck my dick,” when Jenko and Schmidt squabble over who’d be the hypothetical blower and blowee when they hide in a car from baddies by pretending to have oral sex, Schmidt does accept Jenko’s argument as to why he’d be the receiving party.
But 22 Jump Street finally closes the loop on the R-rated comedy’s increasingly uneasy relationship with gay panic jokes by having Jenko take a human sexuality class. After all, what’s college without a political awakening? It’s a side storyline that leads to a pivotal moment in the plot in which there’s open discussion of a slur being casually thrown around by one of the villains. (This sequence has gained an ironic edge thanks to Hill’s recent outburst and subsequent apology.)
22 Jump Street may still find the idea of putting its leads in compromising positions priceless, but this bit manages to feel deeply gratifying, an acknowledgment and refutation of the undercurrents in a lot of this sort of humor. In that scene, and in a later one involving the idea of fight-that-leads-to-sex sex, 22 Jump Street doesn’t just confront tendencies of its genre, it feels like it plants a flag for dude-centric comedies going forward. That’s not just self-referential — that’s some honest-to-god growing up. Not bad for a movie that still loves its dick jokes.