Expectations can do strange things to the way films are received. The directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller seem to know that better than anyone as they’ve benefitted from low expectations leading up to the release of pretty much every movie they’ve made so far. Their recent box office triumph, The Lego Movie, looked like it was going to be little more than a toy commercial and yet people seem to have been more than impressed by the results. The same thing more or less happened with their previous, and decidedly less kid-friendly, film 21 Jump Street. Most people seemed to come out of that movie saying “I can’t believe they managed to make something good out of that.” Personally, I wasn’t sure why they were so surprised. The “21 Jump Street” T.V. show was from before my time, so it just looked like a Jonah Hill movie with an interesting high concept to me and it ended up being more or less the solid R-rated comedy I expected it to be. However, I my expectations were significantly lower for the sequel. Like, a lot lower than the expectations that all those other people seemed to have for the first movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t think this group could make another good movie; it’s just that the first film’s high concept seemed like something that would only work once, and the idea of doing it again sounded more like the kind of thing that the actors would only do out of contractual obligation. Still, that seems to be where this directing team wanted my expectations to be and in their usual fashion they were more than happy to subvert them.
22 Jump Street begins about a year after the first film and has Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) doing more traditional undercover police work, albeit in their usually inept way. After a bust goes wrong it’s decided that the two would be better suited to doing another undercover operation at an educational center, this time a state college. They’re presented with a case that’s a lot like their last one, this time involving a designer drug called WhyPhy which has recently killed a student. They assume the same identities as before and enroll at the college. Like before they infiltrate different social groups. Jenko becomes friends with a guy named Zook (Wyatt Russell) who’s the captain of the football team and a leader of a fraternity, while Schmidt befriends a woman named Maya (Amber Stevens) who is popular amongst the artsy intellectuals on campus. Of course these groups are generally in opposition with each other and their divided loyalties will put quite the strain on both their friendship and their partnership.
21 Jump Street was all about the high school experience, how much different it looks to you once you’re out of it and looking back, and how much it’s changed from the stereotyped depiction that was codified by the high school movies of the 80s. This movie’s take on the college experience is not as refreshing, in part because most of the lingering stereotypes about college were set more in the 90s than the 80s and haven’t seemed as much in need of an update. Still, I think what they are at least somewhat interested in exploring is the way old friends tend to drift apart once they get to college and form new identities. It’s also sort of about the differences between people who actually seem to be in college because they have a genuine interest in learning things and expanding their minds and those who are just there to drink and socialize and hopefully get better career opportunities at the end.
That said, I think the movie is really a lot less interested in all of that than it is in riffing on the absurdity of making a sequel to 21 Jump Street or any other movie really. If you thought Nick Offerman’s speech about how they were “reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s… [because the people in charge] lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice” was by far the best joke of the first movie, you’ll probably absolutely love this movie, because there’s a whole lot more of that meta stuff. Early in the movie they’re told by their superior officer that trying to do different cases was a mistake and that the people in charge just want them to do the same thing all over again but with more money to work with. It doesn’t really end there and the film actually comes pretty close to straight up breaking the fourth wall with some of these jokes that essentially wink at the audience about exactly what kind of movie they’re watching.
I’m of two minds about these meta jokes. On one hand, if you’re going to basically repeat the same story structure of a previous film it probably is better to have some fun with it along the way. On the other hand, you’re still repeating the same story structure all over again. I’ve long been opposed to snarky writers playing the “you know that I know that you know that this is silly” game as a means of shielding themselves from the accusation that they’re working with clichés. On the other hand, these self-referential jokes are generally more funny than Joss Whedon’s self-referential jokes, and they also come in the context of a full-on comedy, and not a largely dramatic story that’s constantly deflating its own momentum. I’m ultimately willing to give this something of a pass, because I did largely enjoy the film, but I probably would have preferred a sequel that actually did find new territory to one that simply retreaded the old territory and then said “yeah, I know.”
Ultimately, 22 Jump Street is a movie that I enjoyed more than I respected. I do think it largely is the kind of dumb retread sequel that it claims to hate, but what can I say, the people in it make me laugh. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum continue to have good comic chemistry and the team of Miller and Lord know how to create an atmosphere that in conducive of funny improvisations and a generally breezy pace. It is telling however that the movie is at its best when it finally does introduce a plotline without a precedent in the first film (a bit involving Ice Cube, you’ll know it when you see it). I feel like they got away with it this time, but I do not want to see yet another one of these movies that just does the same thing all over yet again and jokes about doing it all over yet again. If they do make a 23 Jump Street they better have a damn good reason to, or else they’ll just be proving that they really are full of shit.
*** out of Four