A romantic action-comedy without physical sex between its leads—on principle alone, let's not use the term "bromance""22 Jump Street" is a savvy riff on the nature of TV-to-film reboots and cinematic sequelitis. Opening with a "Previously on..." montage summarizing the events of 2012's "21 Jump Street
," the picture wastes no time jumping into its first of several stunt-heavy action sequences, this one approaching armrest-clenching status as police officer Schmidt (Jonah Hill) finds himself hanging perilously from the side of a drug cartel's cargo truck as it barrels down the highway. Once he and partner Jenko (Channing Tatum) narrowly escape from a gang of traffickers, the guys are reassigned into the gruff care of Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) at the grander, sleeker 22 Jump St. Cue an impressively non-stop barrage of sly double-entendres commenting on the notoriously bigger, louder, dumber state of most movie sequels. True to its claim, the larger-scaled "22 Jump Street" is all of those things, but the makers are clearly in on the joke, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (2014's "The LEGO Movie
"), along with screenwriters Michael Bacall (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
"), Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, quick to beat skeptical audience members to the punch. The loopy, satirical commitment with which they have approached this second part also gives it a slight edge over its predecessor.
Exactly as suggested at the end of "21 Jump Street," Schmidt and Jenko are going back undercover, this time as college kids at MC State. Readopting their alter-egos of siblings Doug and Brad McQuaid, their mission is to find the dealer responsible for selling a new synthetic narcotic called WHYPHY to a student who later overdosed on the drug. Whereas their return to high school turned out to be a more positive experience for one-time outsider Schmidt than former BMOC Jenko, college is a different story. Jenko (as Brad) is quickly welcomed onto the football team and into the hard-partying circles of fraternity Zeta Theta Psi, while Doug poses as an aspiring slam poet and mixes it up with the laid-back art majors. With only an identifying tattoo from a photograph to go on, the guys start sniffing around the campus for clues. Torn between doing their jobs and keeping up appearances, their fictional facades blur with reality as they get increasingly caught up in the college experience they wish they'd had almost a decade earlier.
Episodic and at least fifteen minutes longer than it needs to be, "22 Jump Street" excels and prospers through the dynamite chemistry between Jonah Hill (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
") and Channing Tatum (2013's "White House Down
"). Willing to do anything to earn a laugh while exuding an absolute giddiness at working together, they are foolproof cohorts whose relationship as Schmidt and Jenko has moved beyond that of buddies without the two of them quite consummating their love for one another (they do, however, simulate oral sex when they get caught spying on a private meeting in a library). Schmidt also thinks nothing of rubbing sunscreen on the back of Jenko's neck ("You missed a spot," he says softly), and, in a scene that uncannily mirrors real-life paparazzo footage that recently put Hill in hot water, they school the bad guys on why it's not okay to use homophobic slurs. One-liners about them looking older than the rest of their classmates arrive at a breakneck pace, becoming more hilariously exaggerated as they go (yes, Schmidt is compared to Old Man River and Blanche from "The Golden Girls"), while a shrewd gag about the rampant walks of shame that occur on university campuses earns one of the movie's heartiest chuckles.
The supporting characters are a mixed bag, with Jenko's shallow frat friends led by Zook (Wyatt Russell) particularly bringing nothing to the table. Reprising his part of Captain Dickson with a noticeable surge in screen time, Ice Cube (2008's "The Longshots
") has rarely, if ever, been so genuinely light and amusing. As Maya, an art student positioned as Schmidt's love interest, Amber Stevens (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man
") appealingly takes over for Brie Larson's missing-in-action Molly, whose character from the first film is not even mentioned. Instead of instantly falling for Schmidt, Maya makes it clear to him the morning after they sleep together that she wants to take it slow and is not even sure she likes him when she's sobera harsh comment that nonetheless feels authentic. Because Jenko is once again not given a romantic subplot, the absence of Ellie Kemper's lasciviously peppy Ms. Griggs from the original pic seems all the more like a missed opportunity. In their few short scenes, Kemper and Tatum were hilarious; it's a shame directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller chose to leave her out of this continuation.
If "22 Jump Street" has a secret weapon, it is the remarkably self-assured force of nature that is Jillian Bell (2012's "The Master
"), stealing her every second as Maya's blisteringly unfiltered roommate Mercedes. The role by itself is absurdly brazen and totally original (especially as the plot develops), but the relatively unknown actress-comediana member of the Groundlings improvisational and sketch comedy troupedoes more with it than what anyone behind the scenes could have possibly had in mind. The unpredictable exuberance of Bell's performance should be enough to warrant an instantaneous career breakthrough. Based on the evidence here, she needs her own movie, stat.
As is typically the case with nearly two-hour comedies overstaying their welcome, "22 Jump Street" starts to lose steam in the middle stretch. A tighter 95-minute cut would have done wonders for the outcome. With that said, the action-filled third act set during a ribald spring break in Puerto Mexico reclaims its footing in a big way, the quick-witted humor combining with legit thrills. Less successful: a major timeline discrepancy that sees Schmidt celebrating his 30th birthday when he should logistically be about 26, and a beach full of cheering extras at the end whose broad, cloying reactions make exactly zero sense since they could not possibly understand the context of the death and destruction playing out before them. "22 Jump Street" is guilty of trying too hard and going overboard on occasion, but that is preferable to a movie that doesn't try at all. Indeed, there is such a jovial vibe throughout that its problems are easy to overlook. Audience members would be wise to stay put during the auspicious closing credits, as well, for a clairvoyant trip into the future as the concepts for roughly twenty subsequent series installments are revealed. If the franchise were to faithfully follow these, "21 Jump Street
," "22 Jump Street" and, heck, "36 Jump Street" would transcend to a plane of meta-movie brilliance. Until then, this is a likable, unapologetically R-rated slice of lunacy but a hair's width away from something greater.