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22 Jump Street is the meta-sequel you didn't know you wanted

22 Jump Street is the kind of sequel you get from people who hate sequels. That’s not an entirely bad thing. This is the first sequel Hollywood wunderkinds Chris Lord and Phil Miller have helmed, though not the first they’ve inspired: they fobbed off Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 to Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn, while 2017 promises a second Lego Movie, directed by Chris McKay. 22 Jump Street, follow-up to Lord and Miller’s surprisingly great comedy 21 Jump Street, demonstrates the pair’s opinion of sequels – usually unnecessarily faithful iterations that hew too closely to their predecessors, with little to distinguish them but a bigger budget – and goes some way towards explain their reluctance to continue those film franchises.

Like a couple schoolboys forced to complete homework they have no interest in, Lord and Miller go out of their way to draw attention to the silliness of the task at hand. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll be familiar with the speech Nick Offerman delivers – “We’ve invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going” – and this kind of blatant, ain’t-I-a-stinker meta-humour continues unabated throughout, as cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) go undercover in college to hunt down a drug dealer. The film is rife with references to unnecessary bigger budgets, the similarity of the plot and so forth – and they aren’t kidding. This is practically a carbon copy of the first film’s storyline, with college replacing high school and slam poetry replacing drama.

Ah, but what distinguishes Lord and Miller’s filmography thus far is the way that they have so much fun with their homework, colouring inside the lines but doodling in the margins as well. They don’t so much subvert the buddy cop formula as exaggerate it, hitting every expected narrative development when you’d expect. It makes 22 Jump Street easily accessible for a wider audience, but the real fun is to be had in between the conventional beats. The meta-humour earns a few easy laughs, whether it’s poking fun at sequels, Ice Cube or action movies in general, but it’s nothing innovative. We’ve seen the absurdity of doves in action scenes mocked before, after all (perhaps we’re about due a spoof of action movie spoofs?).

What makes 22 Jump Street succeed is the combination of Hill and Tatum’s winning chemistry alongside some a mix of absurdist and clever gags. The absurdist stuff – like a hilariously bizarre, bizarrely hilarious drug tripping split-screen sequence – earns the big belly laughs, but there’s some astoundingly shrewd jokes snuck in behind them. Many of these are inspired by classic comedy: some Three Stooges here, Benny Hill there, and the opening action set piece bears a strong resemblance to the start of Beverley Hills Cop.

I won’t spoil the fun by listing the specifics of all these jokes, but my favourite example is the convoluted Annie Hall reference. The “Previously On” bit that opens the film includes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Schmidt and Jenko attempting to cook lobsters. When Jenko starts “investigating other people” and bonds with a surfer-blonde football player, he tries to recreate the event … and fails, of course, just as Woody Allen failed in Annie Hall. Much like Community’s amazing Beetlejuice gag, it’s hilarious if you catch it but zips by so fast that it’s not going to leave anyone unfamiliar with Allen’s rom-com scratching their heads.

Hill and, especially, Tatum are able to sell even the less inspired gags. The funniest scene in the film is constructed out of little more than a delayed reaction and Tatum’s puppy-dog comic enthusiasm. The bond between the two actors, and characters, is critical, a friendship pushed to hyperbolic extremes in tribute to the masculine partnerships at the core of buddy cop movies. The presentation of this friendship in the film is… well, I feel like “problematic” is overused so let’s go with worrisome. I don’t think 22 Jump Street is a homophobic film, but by stretching gay innuendo to its extremes – without the counterpoint of an actual gay character – still means that it earns laughs through the hi-larious notion of two men in love. Sam Adams has a great rundown on the “meta-homophobia” of the film over at Indiewire. It’s not disastrous – I laughed, rather than cringed – but in retrospect it could’ve been better judged.

If we’re talking criticism-as-consumer-advice, the big question regarding 22 Jump Street is a simple one – is it funny? After all, I don’t imagine a large portion of the audience would go in expecting a coherent consideration of homophobia from a Jonah Hill-helmed comedy inspired by an 80s television show. And, thankfully, this is a very funny film. It’s not the equal of its predecessor, unfortunately, and while Lord and Miller might argue that’s inevitable – comedy sequels are always worse than the first film! – perhaps if they’d spent more time making jokes than making this argument, they might have bucked the trend.

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