"Jump Street" Sequel Deals Laughs In Bulk

Animated hit “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” (2009) made filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller a known commodity, “21 Jump Street” (2012) pummeled any notions of a sophomore slump, and this year’s “Lego Movie” catapulted the duo to Hollywood darling status. The law firm-esque name of Lord and Miller has quickly become code for invention and enthusiasm in a genre that often waves off both, too often content to focus on the idea of product rather than the product itself. Add a prolific work ethic to the mix – as evidenced by two major releases in six months – and the duo’s quick rise to fame isn’t exactly a surprise.

To understand where “22 Jump Street” fits in the Lord and Miller canon, it’s best to begin at its end. The film’s end credits feature more unbridled creativity than most films employ in their entireties, as concise a summary of the filmmakers’ methodology as any. Without spoiling any of the fun, it’s the movie’s final, blow-out assault on the notion of sequels, and it’s likely to leave viewers’ heads spinning. No one will be left holding his or her breath for “23 Jump Street,” but since most multiplex air will be monopolized by laughter, it’ll hardly matter.

“22 Jump Street” spends much of its first act positing itself as a classically inept sequel, kicking off with a broadly unfunny action sequence that’s trailed by an avalanche of commentary on what it means to be a sequel and why they’re never as good. And for thirty minutes, it isn’t. Intentional or not, the film sputters out of the gate, too self-conscious to find any sort of rhythm and too expansive to zero in on the chemistry between its leads. But then, act two, a sustained comedic high note that burns longer and brighter than anything in “21 Jump Street,” ultimately carrying the pic’s willfully tepid story into a third act that shouldn’t work, but does.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are back as undercover cops Schmidt and Jenko, brainy schlub and vacuous stud, respectively. The characters are, of course, more than logline clichés, but much of the series’ genius is in confining Hill and Tatum to stereotypes and requiring that they grow them from the inside out. Jenko, for example, is genuinely sweet and disarming under his lunkheaded exterior, which plays wonderfully off of Schmidt’s defensive surliness. But chemistry can’t be written, and the film’s ultimate success or failure once again lies at the feet of its two stars. And once again, they get it absolutely right.

There’s some real dramatic heft to their strong but fracturing friendship, and anyone who’s ever experienced a relationship on the brink should easily relate. As their case develops, Jenko and Schmidt grow apart, struggling to maintain a modicum of professional rapport. It’s borderline miraculous that their interpersonal problems comes across as genuine in a story that’s anything but. Since the screenplay spends every other scene winking at its audience – “sequels are the worst, right?” – it’s an enormous credit to Hill and Tatum that they’re able to bring an even greater human element than they did in “21 Jump Street.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast is better utilized this time around. Out of high school and onto college, our heroes find themselves infiltrating a drug ring that’s eerily similar to that of the last film – which it notes frequently and hilariously – and the pic wisely puts their commanding officer, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) front and center. A subplot featuring heavy-duty conflict between Schmidt and Dickson is a high point, as it even manages to mine gold from Jenko merely laughing at their discord.

Amber Stevens (TV’s “Greek”) takes the place of Brie Larson as a love interest for Hill, Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) plays similarly off Tatum – their relationship replete with frequently amusing homoerotic undertones – and Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”) nearly runs away with the film as a sarcastic co-ed. Veteran character actor Peter Stormare actor rounds out the main cast as a cardboard cutout of a villain, while Nick Offerman (“Parks And Recreation”) returns briefly as the prickly, exposition-minded Deputy Chief Hardy.

The action scenes aren’t quite indicative of the $50 million plus budget, but they’re nothing to sneeze at either. Lord and Miller have as much skill with action as they do comedy, and the third act action bonanza is a cue that they’re capable of just about anything. The duo has yet to make a film that fires on all cylinders from beginning to end, but they’re well on their way – and “22 Jump Street” is, in addition to being a terrific showcase for its two stars, a natural progression for the duo.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 13, 2014
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Screenwriter: Michael Bacall, Rodney Rothman, Oren Uziel
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Wyatt Russell, Jillian Bell, Nick Offerman
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence)