In the annals of movies in which character pronounce “annals” as “anals” just to get a cheap laugh, “22 Jump Street” approaches heights of sublime shamelessness. The hyper-self-aware follow-up to the equally hyper-self-aware “21 Jump Street,” this is a sequel that wears its well-worn formula, mocking inside jokes and gleeful taste for overkill proudly, flying the high-lowbrow flag for audiences that like their comedy just smart enough to be not-too-dumb.
As he did in the first installment, Nick Offerman sets up the action in “22 Jump Street” with a barely discernible wink. As Metro City Deputy Police Chief Hardy, he informs star undercover officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) of their new case, having to do with a campus drug ring much like the one they busted in the first movie. Huffing and puffing about the idea of reboots, he warns them, “It’s always worse the second time around.”
Not necessarily. “22 Jump Street” steers blessedly clear of common sequel traps, even while brazenly committing so many of the form’s sins. The plot here is remarkably similar to the first one, with the guys infiltrating a college campus to bust the kingpin responsible for a new drug called Why-Phy (Work Hard Yes, Play Hard Yes), which creates intense focus for the first two hours, then a blissful hallucinatory trip. Once Schmidt and Jenko get to MC State, though, their roles are somewhat reversed from last time: Jenko — “the first person in my family to pretend to go to college” — accesses his inner jock and becomes the hit of rush week, striking up an instant friendship with a blond Adonis named Zook (Wyatt Russell). Hurt, rejected and jealous, Schmidt takes up with the school’s bohemian crowd, drinking red wine in the art building and romancing a pretty student named Maya (Amber Stevens).
[Related: 2014 Summer movie guide]
As in the first movie — which sounded so bad on paper but turned out to be a delightful surprise — “22 Jump Street” features a hilarious drug trip, some delish cameos and a steady stream of double-entendres meant to send up the homoerotic subtexts of so many buddy-cop movies. Granted, Hill — who wrote the script with Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman — drives that last joke into the ground, with Jenko and Schmidt at one point breaking up (er, agreeing to “investigate other people”) only to reunite for a climactic sequence of slapstick carnage set during spring break in Mexico. “We don’t have to put a label on it,” Jenko says earnestly when Schmidt questions getting back together.
But the truth is, the old-married-couple dynamic between the two men is still funny, especially in the deft hands of Hill and Tatum, who have built a comic chemistry worthy of Hope and Crosby — or at least Lucy and Ethel. As before, Tatum effectively steals the show with his note-perfect rendition of the naive, muscle-bound meatstick. Informed that they have an unlimited budget with which to run amok, he thinks they have “Cate Blanchett.” After taking a human sexuality class, he realizes how many gay slurs he’s used in the past and confesses to Schmidt that he’s sorry for being a “homophone.”
It’s all in the delivery. And that goes for the movie as a whole, again directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie”) with sprightly energy and a keen eye for supporting talent. In addition to Russell, who nails a hilarious scene with Tatum in which they flirtatiously bro out on a moonlit goalpost, the filmmakers had the good taste to cast the comedy duo the Lucas Brothers as Jenko and Schmidt’s spaced-out dorm neighbors and Jillian Bell as Mercedes, a deadpan debutante-type with a lethally funny mean streak.
As problematic as it is lately to accept gunplay as a zany joke, the action and violence in “22 Jump Street” always give realism hyperbolically wide berth. Lest anyone mistake the movie’s antic intentions, the boys actually pass the Benjamin Hill Center for Film Studies on their way to decimating the college’s sculpture garden and robotics lab, all the while delivering a running commentary on how much money they’re wasting for no discernible reason. (And yes, “22 Jump Street” pokes fun of other movies, including Tatum’s gratuitously destructive “White House Down.”)
Much of the humor in “22 Jump Street” is in-jokey and broad, including a funny end-credits sequence suggesting the myriad ways the still-fresh franchise can cannibalize its own concept and destroy audience goodwill. But the most enjoyable pleasures of this paean to summer silliness are the small ones, like the little “ping” that sounds when big, dim Jenko twigs to a crucial change in the relationship between Schmidt and irascible Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). Touches like that keep “22 Jump Street” enjoyably light on its feet, even when it’s self-consciously treading old ground. With luck, things aren’t always worse the third time around.
★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence. 105 minutes.