By all accounts, 2012's 21 Jump Street should have been a total disaster. Yet by openly acknowledging the absurdity of adapting a TV show that had been off the air for 20 years, and eschewing the angsty melodrama of the original series for hip meta humor, the filmmakers managed to turn out an enjoyably self-aware comedy that benefitted tremendously from the unlikely chemistry between stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. For that reason, it came as no surprise when a sequel was announced shortly after its release.
Flash forward two years, and the same creative team behind that unlikely hit return with a sequel that has a different satirical target in its sights. Yes, this time screenwriter Michael Bacall and Hill (who are again credited with the story) are singling out the concept of sequels for derision, and with the help of new co-writers Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman, they mock everything that makes follow-ups feel repetitive and superfluous. At the same time, they add an extra helping of juvenile farce that keeps the laughs coming even (or perhaps especially) as the film flirts with contemporary comedy's most feared scourge -- the two-hour mark.
The movie opens to find undercover cops Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) breaking character and botching a major bust. As a result, a notorious criminal known as the Ghost (Peter Stormare) manages a clean getaway, and Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) sends the not-so-fresh faced cops back to Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) for a new assignment. Operating out of 22 Jump Street, which is directly across the street from their old headquarters, Schmidt and Jenko are tasked with posing as college students in order to identify the source behind a dangerous new drug known on the streets as WhyPhy (Work Hard Yes, Play Hard Yes -- a potent blend of Adderall and Ecstasy).
Once the duo settle into their new dorms, the search for suspects leads them in different directions: While Jenko falls in with the jock fraternity, led by star football players Rooster (Jimmy Tatro) and Zook (Wyatt Russell), Schmidt investigates the liberal-arts students and finds himself falling for pretty Maya (Amber Stevens). In time, this divergent approach leads to an ever widening gap between the formerly tight-knit cops, which is further exacerbated by Jenko's blossoming bro-mance with Zook. But later, just when it looks like the case has been cracked, a new wrinkle appears that requires Schmidt and Jenko to repair their fractured partnership in order to catch their man (or woman).
By opening with a ridiculous action sequence that emphasizes the bigger budget, followed by Offerman's Deputy Chief Hardy delivering a speech that calls out everything that's wrong with sequels, writers Bacall, Uziel, and Rothman make their target as clear as a paper perpetrator in a police shooting range. Fortunately, they also realize that hammering away at this one point could grow tiresome over the course of two hours; by following both characters down their separate paths, they allow the story to meander in the best sense of the word. Often in comedies (especially those marked by improvisation), it's easy to get the impression that the cast were having a riot on the set. That can be dangerous if the good vibes don't end up on the screen as well, but here, as in the first film, Hill and Tatum exhibit an infectious playfulness that seems to extend to their co-stars (especially in the cases of Cube, Russell, and Jillian Bell as Maya's caustically deadpan roommate) and their audience.
This is complimented by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the rising directorial duo who -- coming off the success of The Lego Movie -- keep the pacing brisk while adding a dash of visual flair as they riff on increasingly larger action clichés. Though it could be said that Lord and Miller abuse split screen more than anyone since Brian De Palma in his prime, a hallucinogenic detour early on and a post-credits forecast for the future both offer dazzling visuals that don't feel out of place despite their stylistic divergence. And even if 22 Jump Street feels 22 minutes too long, chances are you'll be laughing hysterically though 12 of them, and fighting to find your breath during the rest.