Earlier this year, the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller tackled the perils of conformity and the joys of creativity in The Lego Movie, which took America by storm and became the year’s highest-grossing movie so far. Having previously adapted Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and revived 21 Jump Street for the big screen, Lord and Miller were no strangers to Hollywood success, but The Lego Movie elevated their profile to previously unthinkable heights.
22 Jump Street ought to do it again. It’s as funny as the original, with an extra layer of metacommentary on the inevitable fatigue and repetition that plagues most movie sequels. Better yet, the metacommentary exists not as a mere distraction from a dearth of originality, but rather a springboard from which new ideas emerge. The movie is about the hapless Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and the muscular Jenkoff (Channing Tatum) chasing their former glory and confronting the unusual nature of their relationship. As in the first movie, there are car chases, preposterous plot twists, romantic entanglements, professional jealousies, pop-culture references, celebrity cameos and tidy resolutions. Working from a script by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, Lord and Miller manage to freshen this retread with self-awareness and a genuine layer of compassion.
Before the movie proper begins, a brief “Previously on…” segment hurriedly summarizes the previous movie, in homage to the original TV series. Our first glimpse of the dynamic duo comes during their final moments with their precious vehicle from the original movie, which promptly gets destroyed at the hands of exotic animal-peddling drug lords, led by Peter Stormare. The sequel’s setup arrives shortly thereafter, as Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) sends the pair to “Metropolitan City State University” to “infiltrate the dealer, find the supply…exactly like last time.” The trouble is, following the pattern from last time turns out not to be good enough, as the case isn’t what it initially seems.
Though many of the story beats are intentionally reminiscent of the original, the central relationship is consistently satisfying and the peripheral characters are delightful, particularly The Yangs, a pair of identical twins with identical trains of thought (Keith and Kenny Lucas), and Mercedes (Jillian Bell, Workaholics), who sees right through Schmidt’s facade and coins the most accurate description of Jonah Hill’s face I’ve ever heard (“eight year-old grandpa”). Even better, Ice Cube makes the most of his additional screentime in this sequel, particularly with a clever plot development that culminates in Captain Dickson overturning a catering table and bellowing profanities to a crowd of concerned college students and their parents.
The action sequences are generally well-executed, though they too often succumb to the easiest possible joke: Jenkoff accomplishes a superhuman feat of strength and agility, and Schmidt attempts to replicate said feat with amusingly unfortunate results. As much as Channing Tatum’s extraordinary bulk is a feature in his comedic arsenal, the character’s insistence on showing off doesn’t quite land with the self-aware kick of the other recurring gags. Far more successful are the new relationships that form as Schmidt and Jenkoff intermittently and haphazardly conduct their investigation. Zook (Wyatt Russell) is a hunky foil for Jenkoff’s wild side, and Jonah Hill has surprisingly winning chemistry with Amber Stevens as Maya, who may be connected to the drug business.
In the previous movie, Lord and Miller concentrated on subverting the traditional buddy cop dynamic by making Schmidt the successful smooth-talker and Jenkoff the unlikely science nerd. This time, they set their sights on converting the homosexual undertones of the buddy cop dynamic from subtext into text. The movie falls just shy from pairing Schmidt and Jenkoff romantically, but the script pushes the characters closer to acknowledging that their “bro” relationship is perhaps something more. Given that Hollywood movies almost uniformly star heterosexual couples, whether same- or mixed-gender, you almost wish Lord and Miller would just commit to the characters being gay and let the dynamic play out from there.
In a way, though, their approach is more mature, and less binary. Schmidt and Jenkoff aren’t romantically or sexually attracted to each other, but they are undeniably connected in a way that goes beyond a mere friendship. “Bromance” is a reductive and problematic term, but Lord and Miller seem to be arguing in favor of the concept as an alternative to traditional notions of modern love. Just because Schmidt and Jenkoff love each other doesn’t mean they’re gay, but there’s also no reason to assume that they couldn’t be. In a key moment, Jenkoff interrupts an action sequence to refute the villain’s use of a homophobic slur. Such a moment would have been unthinkable until recently.
The movie ultimately handles this tricky material with far more subtlety and nuance than something like Sherlock, which also stars two heterosexual men who have clearly bonded in some way that’s more than merely platonic. Whereas that show expends far too much energy insisting that the characters aren’t gay because that would be strange and foreign, 22 Jump Street gently responds to such suggestions more thoughtfully: they’re not gay, but they are in love, and that’s not a bad thing. (It helps that Tatum and Hill’s performances complement each other as much as they showcase their individual talents.)
This movie arrives on the heels of an incident in which Jonah Hill lobbed a homophobic at a member of the paparazzi. Given that the movie explores the idea of hurtful language more directly than any mainstream comedy in recent memory, this incident could not have arrived at a more unfortunate time. In a way, though, it’s indicative of an encouraging trend, one that other movies and celebrities ought to emulate. Homophobic slurs are no longer going to fly under the radar, in life or in art. Even if 22 Jump Street doesn’t quite reach the progressive heights to which it seems to aspire, it’s a hugely successful blockbuster that posits a complex definition of love and interrogates assumptions about conventional interactions onscreen and off. As heteronormativity continues to run rampant in Hollywood, this development is a welcome step in a more inclusive direction.
22 Jump Street accomplishes the neat trick that has become Lord and Miller’s modus operandi. It takes a familiar concept, calls attention to the flaws within that concept, effectively executes a high-quality version of that concept and then allows that concept to evolve in new directions. They’ve become intermediaries between the cliches that Hollywood studios prefer and the originality they fear. With the end credits seeming to foreclose the possibility of a conventional threequel, there may be more surprises in store. If they’re as massively enjoyable as this one, Jump Street will be a place worth visiting for years to come.
A Few More Notes (Minor Spoilers):
*In another, more fun world, Ice Cube would be considered for awards recognition for his supporting work here. He rises to the occasion in every one of his scenes.
*This movie requires a surprising degree of familiarity with the previous one in order to fully appreciate the escalating jokes. The irony is that it’s not nearly as much of a retread as its characters claim it is.
*Two more great scenes: Schmidt requiring absolute silence to get into character and Jenkoff straining to improvise a convincing Mexican accent; Schmidt and Mercedes repeatedly interrupting their fistfight to address the possibility of sexual tension.
*Even if the movie’s self-aware hijinks aren’t your thing, the end credits sequence alone is worth the price of admission. It actually gets funnier and more inventive the longer it runs.