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story.lead_photo.caption Jonah Hill (left) and Channing Tatum in 22 Jump Street.

Credit resourceful directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, fresh off their financial and critical triumph with The Lego Movie, for coming up with a loophole to extricate themselves from the single most difficult conundrum in all of summer blockbuster sequel-dom: How do you make a new hilarious comedy while still having to incorporate all the old characters, jokes and elements of the previous film that made it so popular in the first place?

22 Jump Street

83 Cast: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Wyatt Russell, Ice Cube, Nick Offerman

Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence

Running time: 112 minutes

Their not-inelegant solution is to call out the situation for exactly what it is: A scene early on between undercover partners Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), and their captain (Nick Offerman), puts everything on the table. As the characters argue about how their next mission should go, their captain maintains they need to do the "exact, same thing" they did before in their previous undercover operation, just with a much bigger budget. “Yeah,” snorts Schmidt, “like that’s going to work.” But the captain remains steadfast, “Do the same thing as last time,” he concludes, “everyone’s happy.”

Thus freed from the awkward stickiness and artifice of big-sequel conventions, Lord and Miller are free to follow their fine-tuned, slightly riotous comedy instinct wherever it takes them, even as it still duly fulfills nearly all the plot beats and character interactions that the surprisingly hit first movie provided. It’s the kind of inventive comedy approach the filmmakers of the Hangover trilogy must be kicking themselves about.

Of course, it’s more or less what Lord and Miller, working again with screenwriter Michael Bacall among others, did the first time around, taking a clunky, clueless TV show from the late ’80s and mining it for unexpected comic gold. Johnny Depp, the original star of that idiotic series, famously left the show at his first opportunity to distance himself as quickly as possible from the sort of pretty-boy machismo the show had to offer. But where Depp saw nothing but a cheesy TV wasteland, Lord and Miller gloried in the show’s tacky, youth-market ineptitude and made surprising hay with the compost heap of source material they were tasked with using, gleefully playing with the show’s wooden characters and primitive, serialized plotting to yield something surprisingly amusing.

As far as this sequel goes, expectations are pretty well met, though by the end, the directing duo might well have burned the bridges of potential for a third film. As previously described, best buds Jenko and Schmidt find themselves in pretty much the same plot as before, except, instead of going undercover at a high school to expose a drug ring, they are enrolled in a local college to track down the dealer of a powerful new drug called Whyphy. At college, the bros find themselves divided when Jenko starts playing football and getting tight with the team’s quarterback, a blond frat bro named Zook (Wyatt Russell), while poor, needy Schmidt gets vaguely involved with a gorgeous art student, Maya (Amber Stevens). Still at a loss without Jenko — the movie sticks fast with its bromance-over-romance philosophy — Schmidt takes it hard and morosely spends time in his lonely dorm room sans partner.

As far as major conflict goes, that’s about all the film figures it needs to offer. Constantly toying with audience expectations and poking fun at perennial sequel overkill — a phenomenon whereupon a studio, instead of devoting its energies to developing a truly new idea from existing characters, simply throws a giant budget at the filmmakers in hopes that the resulting big-money spectacle will numb viewers so they don’t ask too many questions — the film merrily dances along, unencumbered by the weight of its previous popularity.

It helps that Lord and Miller are clever enough to have a bunch of fun along the way. There’s a delirious hallucinatory trip the partners are forced to take after accidentally ingesting a massive amount of the drug they’re trying to track down (Schmidt’s trip, while still in bummer mode, puts him on a hellish landscape that pelts him with rain and hail; Jenko spends his time on splitscreen on a cloth-covered island inhabited by friendly, loving creatures like something out of H.R. Pufnstuf).

Smaller comic flourishes also abound, including a recurring gag with Schmidt stumbling around campus in the early morning, holding his shoes and staring at the ground, surrounded by students similarly enduring their own walks of shame, and the nonstop, corrosively verbal assault of Mercedes (Jillian Bell, one of the film’s strongest comic performers), Maya’s roommate, who constantly accuses Schmidt of being too old-looking for the part (“You look like you’re on Hawaii Dads,” she deadpans).

If the film’s last act — the reunited partners continuing their investigation down in Puerto Rico for a predictably shaggy spring break resolution — begins to drag with a few too many partners-as-lovers gags and retreading ground already stomped upon earlier, it is at least smart enough to recognize its folly and pointlessness as it closes in on an appropriately silly climax. Throwing a live hand grenade into an enemy’s getaway chopper as he drops down into the ocean, Jenko yells, and I quote, “Something clever!” as the chopper bursts into flames. To complete the sequel-flaming experience, the closing credits sequence then involves various set-ups for future sequels, including the boys going undercover in beauty school, space and firefighter academy, each with a movie poster, and occasionally, with cast changes to accommodate the actors’ growing salary demands.

Like Joss Whedon did with Marvel’s The Avengers, Lord and Miller are able to send up the tight conventions of the blockbuster even as they are serving them up in great, heaping gobs. If this film tries to have it both ways, at least it acknowledges the relative intelligence of its audience in the process. Given the choice, it’s far more amusing to opt for fourth-wall comic cynicism over pointless, high-budget bombast.

MovieStyle on 06/13/2014

Print Headline: 22 Jump Street

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