Just Like Last Time: "22 Jump Street" a sequel that's proud to be a sequel

22 Jump Street (2014)
112 min., rated R.

With a bad sequel, the joke is usually on the audience for expecting to find anything fresh when more! more! more! will suffice. With "22 Jump Street," the audience gets to be in on it. No one was clamoring for a reboot to the 1987-1991 police procedural series, and yet "21 Jump Street" was knowing and hilariously witty in how it made fun of the age-old trend of Hollywood turning long-defunct TV shows into movies. On paper, a sequel should have had no reason to work, as the worst-case scenario sees sequels being bigger, louder and just cynically expensive Xerox copies of their predecessors with none of the inspiration and novelty, but it does work. "22 Jump Street" knows it's a sequel, takes the piss out of being a sequel, and takes a risk by unabashedly being more of the same and yet being just as funny, if not funnier, than "21 Jump Street."

Police officers and friends Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) find themselves back in the game, doing the exact same thing as last time and replaying their undercover identities as siblings Doug and Brad. Two exceptions: their police unit, headed by the perpetually angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), now sets up shop at a Vietnamese church across the street at 22 Jump Street, and instead of infiltrating a high school, the "power couple" is off to college at MC State. Someone with an unusual tattoo from a photo is supplying a new drug called "Why-Phy" (yes, it sounds just like the wireless Internet service) that has already take one college kid's life, and it's up to Schmidt and Jenko to sniff out which campus clique might be involved and gain their trust. While Schmidt joins the football team and falls in with a Zeta Theta Psi frat brother named Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn), Jenko gives slam poetry a try and starts hanging out with the art students, particularly possible love interest Maya (Amber Stevens), since he would rather not engage in frat pledging and flipping over cases of beer. Once again, the two unlikely best friends find themselves in different social circles, losing sight of one another and the case. 

Sillier and perhaps even more boisterous than before, "22 Jump Street" is still clownishly, ticklishly funny and inventive in the ways it doesn't deviate from what made the first movie such a legitimate hit. Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are already having a banner year, heck, career with this year's "The LEGO Movie" that methinks they might be unstoppably brilliant, along the lines of another Peter and Bobby Farrelly or Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker (ZAZ). The first film's screenwriter, Michael Bacall, teams with newbie Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, and they bring an even more satirical edge and pay off every joke they set up. The whole meta conceit that everyone acknowledges they are in a sequel with a slightly bigger budget would seem like it might wear thin, but the film is so swift on its feet, always moving on to another version of or variation on the same joke. Once again, Nick Offerman, reprising his expository role as Chief Hardy, sets up our characters' new mission with a wink: "Nobody cared about the 'Jump Street' reboot, but you got lucky. So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure 'Jump Street' keeps going." In one of many riffs on mega-budgeted sequels, Schmidt keeps barking at Jenko to not ruin any property during a car chase in a giant MC helmet on wheels, or their destruction will cost the department more money. 

It's a good thing "22 Jump Street" really does follow the same formula as last time because this one again hinges on the loose, dynamite chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum and champions the idea of the so-called "bromance," which is a relationship just as any but without the sex. Hill and Channing are likable as ever, the former making a "walk of shame" look adorable and the latter still very game and owning up to his newfound knack for comedy (listen to his endearing mispronunciation of "annals"). For all intents and purposes, Schmidt and Jenko are a couple. When Jenko starts spending time with Zook after a clever "meet cute" that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, they are like two peas in a pod, but he's torn between two men. There's a touchy-feely sweetness to both bromantic relationships, and both are played so earnestly that neither ever have the chance to become lame, forced gay-panic situations. The film even goes so far as to throw Schmidt and Jenko into an on-campus couples counseling session, force them into an "open investigation," and use a temporary break-up montage, cued to John Waite's "Missing You," that would be found in any conventional romantic comedy. A line of supporting actors and surprising comedians are solid in bit parts, too, with a few cameos, to boot. Ice Cube is also better used as Capt. Dickson, with a key plot surprise that reminds one of his January dud "Ride Along" with Kevin Hart, and he completely nails a bit in which Dickson attacks a buffet table. Amber Stevens, taking over for Brie Larson from the first film, is lovely and eye-catching as Maya, who might give Schmidt a chance, and synchronized-talking twins Kenny and Keith Lucas are a riot whenever popping up on screen as Schmidt and Jenko's stoned dorm neighbors. Above all of them, though, "Groundlings" alumnus Jillian Bell is the biggest scene-stealer. As Maya's blunt roommate Mercedes, she nails every deadpan putdown and shows off her sharp-as-a-tack improv skills that the editors probably had a hell of a time finding the funniest takes.

Directors Lord and Miller whip out plenty of quirky stylistic flourishes, like a "college essential" checklist of bean-bag chairs and shower poofs and an obligatory but giddily uproarious psychotropic sequence of Schmidt and Jenko's disparate states of drug-induced euphoria. And don't even dream of leaving before the gut-bustingly inspired closing credits, which take "sequel-dom" to a whole new level and imagine an endless onslaught of potential sequels, an animated series and video games. Comedy is relative, and as long as you're on the inside of the joke, not a stretch goes by without some sort of amusement. Not since the "Scream" series has a sequel been so aware of itself in both sly and obvious ways without driving the self-referential stuff into the ground and then delivering a very good representative of what it's referencing and roasting. Neither a sloppy comedy nor a lazy sequel, "22 Jump Street" is a total blast.

Grade: A -