Phil Lord and Chris Miller have built a career out of making things work that really should not have worked. Coming off only the short-lived cult animated series "Clone High," and a brief year on "How I Met Your Mother," the duo made their feature debut with "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs," an adaptation of a 34-page children's picture book that looked pretty poor on paper, and turned out to be something of a treat for people of any age. Then, they took on a reboot of '80s cop show "21 Jump Street," starring the much-mocked Channing Tatum, and turned it into a fresh and funny spin on both the high school and the buddy cop movie. And only a few months ago, they turned something called "The Lego Movie" into one of the best films of the year so far.
For their next trick, Lord and Miller are taking on what might be their toughest job yet—a comedy sequel. The number of funny follow-ups that even come close to matching the first film can be pretty much counted on the fingers of no hands (just look at last year's "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2," made without Lord and Miller's direct involvement). That "22 Jump Street" seemed to come together speedily (barely two years after the original hit theaters) hardly bodes well either, but dammit if Lord and Miller haven't done it again. "22 Jump Street" might not be quite as good as "21 Jump Street," but it's remarkably close, to the point where subsequent viewings could see it elevated above its predecessor.
Some time has passed since the events of the first film, and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are back on the beat, opening the film attempting, wildly unsuccessfully, to take down drug dealer Ghost (Peter Stormare). As a result, their sergeant (Nick Offerman, returning for some more sly meta-commentary), suggesting that it didn't work because they didn't do the same thing as the first time around, assigns them back to the Jump Street youth-oriented undercover unit, which has now moved across the street, to the bigger, more expensive-looking Vietnamese Church at 22 Jump Street.
This time, a new drug known as WHY-FHY, a mix of Adderal and Ecstasy, is doing the rounds on college campuses, and the duo are sent to college in their undercover identities as brothers, to do again what they managed last time, and work their way up the food chain to find the supplier. But the pair's relationship is tested once they hit the halls of higher education. Jenko joins the football team, and seemingly finds a new dunder-headed soulmate in fellow jock Zook (Wyatt Russell), while Schmidt, left on the outside, starts hanging out with the trendy art crowd, and in particular the beautiful Maya (Amber Stevens).
Certainly, there's a certain amount of formula at play, a sense of if-it's-not-broke-then-don't-fix-it. And for the early part of the film, you feel the script (by original writer Michael Bacall, along with rising star Oren Uziel and "Grudge Match" scribe Rodney Rothman) ticking off beats from the original. Self-referential chiding by Ron Swanson? Check. Being shouted at by Ice Cube? Check. Introduction of Schmidt's love interest? Check. Psychedelic drug trip where Hill and Tatum get to let their hair down? Check.
It risks starting to feel a bit by the numbers at points, but just pulls back from that. For one, the film sticks a hat on it, calling attention to its own nature as a sequel, but also knows when to stop doing that and start telling a story. For another, it begins to break away at the midpoint and become its own thing, bringing new twists to elements from the first film (Ice Cube gets a bigger role this time around, and the way he's used ends up getting one of the heartiest laughs in the film).
But also, by sticking to the template, Lord, Miller and the writers can focus on perfecting the formula, mostly by making it, if anything, even funnier. This time out, the film positively dense with jokes, almost all of which are good. Unlike many studio comedies, arguably including the original, it doesn't need to stop being funny in order to tell a story, and almost every scene has been wrung out for gags to some degree or another. The film is bigger in most ways, and the action and filmmaking seems more consciously indebted to Michael Bay—and "Bad Boys" in particular—right down to the homoerotic relationship between the two leads. Because while it's looser and funnier than the first film, there's still something of an emotional spine in the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko, with even more parallels drawn with a romantic coupling this time around (the pair even end up going to a couples counselor, played by the always welcome Marc Evan Jackson). The first film's progressive streak continues here too: Jenko, eyes opened by taking a Human Sexuality class, even blows their cover mid-operation at one point to take the bad guys to task for using a homophobic slur.
The sequel is probably lacking a female lead as strong and well-rounded as Brie Larson from the first film, but the new additions are generally welcome: Stevens makes a sweet foil for Hill; Russell does the same, semi-platonically, with Tatum; and various other comedic ringers, including Jackson, H. Jon Benjamin and others we wouldn't want to give away, crop up throughout. Best of all is "Workaholics" star Jillian Bell, who steals every scene she's in as Stevens' acerbic roommate.
But once again, it's really Hill and Tatum's film, and they're both still excellent, with Hill bringing sensitivity and vulnerability in spades, and Tatum, if anything, proving an even more accomplished comic than in the first film. For all the joys in the rest of "22 Jump Street," it lives and dies on their chemistry, and it's a genuine pleasure to hang with the pair again.
If we had one more criticism, it's that the Spring Break-set conclusion doesn't end up being quite as nuts as you might hope, "Neighbors" having already raised the on-screen party bar this summer. But it's still funny and engaging, and the film peaks right at the end with a glorious closing credit sequence that provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, while seemingly blowing up the franchise. Which is almost a shame, because if Lord and Miller can keep up the quality to this degree, we'd happily watch a 'Jump Street' movie every couple of years for the foreseeable future. [B+]