Those masters of having their genre-parody cake and eating it too, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have followed up their sly, self-referential franchise reboot “21 Jump Street” with an inevitable sequel that is, at least in part, a sly, self-referencing commentary on the inevitability of sequels. Reuniting producer-stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum for a second round of poorly camouflaged undercover antics, “22 Jump Street” swaps high school for college and prom for spring break but otherwise sticks snugly to the prior film’s winning formula, mining the resultant doublings and repetitions for maximum absurdist hilarity. (Think Samuel Beckett’s “Animal House.”) Given both Hill and Tatum’s ever-increasing zeitgeist value, the pic should have little trouble besting its predecessor’s $200 million worldwide haul, giving “Lego Movie” helmers Lord and Miller their second B.O. smash of 2014.
Much as “21 Jump Street” managed to simultaneously tip its hat and thumb its nose at its 1980s fourth-network source material, so “22 Jump Street” wears its sequel-ness on its sleeve, from an opening “previously on” recap (including a wry “Annie Hall” homage not seen in the original film) to its inspired closing montage of concepts for future “Jump Street” sequels (culinary school! ninja school!). In between, returning screenwriter Michael Bacall and co-writers Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman pick up exactly where “21” left off, with officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) heading off to college on a new assignment for their beleaguered deputy chief (Nick Offerman), who winkingly cautions that things “are always worse the second time.”
As it happens, it’s an online university to which the partners have been dispatched, charged with ferreting out coded messages in the classroom lectures of a bloviating philosophy professor. But after letting a wanted kingpin (Peter Stormare) slip through their hands — a hilarious episode that builds to a great, Harold Lloyd-worthy bit of death-defying slapstick — Jenko and Schmidt find themselves back on Jump Street, back under the thumb of the dyspeptic Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube), and once again donning their alter egos of brothers Brad and Doug McQuaid to infiltrate a suspected drug-trafficking ring at a local university.
Whereas high school redux proved an unexpected season in hell for Jenko (whose macho, bullying ways were hopelessly out of step with the PC times) and a boon for the nerdy Schmidt (who suddenly found himself in with the “in” crowd), college life turns out to be very much the inverse. Proud to be the first person in his family “to pretend to go to college,” Jenko quickly emerges as a prime catch for the MC State football team, as well as for an elite fraternity house whose alpha-male president Zook (Wyatt Russell) may just be the dealer Dickson is trying to bust. But Jenko isn’t nearly so sure, and as he and Zook become fast BFFs, Schmidt finds himself all out of love and hopelessly lost without his erstwhile wingman — until, that is, he falls for beautiful art major Maya (Amber Stevens), who, for reasons not immediately apparent, should come labeled “Look But Don’t Touch.”
The college scenes are, like a lot of what Lord and Miller do, hit-and-miss, with a loosely stitched-together improv-comedy feel (in keeping with its self-reflexive spirit, the film even includes an onscreen conversation about the relative merits of scripted and unscripted comedy). But “22 Jump Street” hits far more often than it misses, and even when it misses by a mile, the effort is so delightfully zany that it’s hard not to give Lord and Miller an “A” for effort. Almost worth the price of admission alone: Schmidt’s impromptu participation in a slam poetry contest, a cheerfully Dada piece of performance art that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Ron Burgundy’s jazz-flute solo from the first “Anchorman” movie. The writers have also fleshed out the sequel with a smattering of new characters that give several bright young comic performers a chance to shine, especially twin brothers Keith and Kenny Lucas as a set of half-black, half-Chinese twins who suggest stoner-doofus versions of the jive-talking passengers from “Airplane!,” and “Workaholics” alum Jillian Bell, who brings a demented kewpie-doll intensity to the role of Maya’s unstable roommate.
A movie this self-aware might easily drown in its own ironic detachment, but as they did so deftly in both “21 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie,” Lord and Miller balance their smartypants meta-humor with go-for-broke pratfalls and a certain fundamental sincerity that keeps the characters relatable without ever veering into straight-faced emotionalism. (When it seems that the movie might, along comes a good, old-fashioned crotch-grabbing gag to lighten the air.) Perhaps owing to their background in animation (where they did “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”), Lord and Miller also know how to sell a joke visually better than most contemporary comedy directors, and “22 Jump Street” is rife with delightful throwaway visual gags, from De Palma-esque split screens to a car chase (between Hummer and helmet-shaped golf cart) that might have been designed by ‘60s-era Richard Lester.
Eventually, all roads lead to spring break in “Puerto Mexico” — a conspicuously less decadent gathering than the one envisaged by Harmony Korine, though it hardly matters, because whenever Hill and Tatum are onscreen together the movie enters a blissful realm that nothing can violate. Both actors are marvelous physical comedians, and much of “22 Jump Street” turns on Laurel-and Hardy-like juxtapositions of Hill’s short, stocky inertia against Tatum’s chiseled, gravity-defying grace. Tatum has been too good too many times now to still be deemed a revelation, but he seems especially boisterous and joyful here, like a mischievous first grader trapped in a linebacker’s body, or perhaps a very deft comic actor who only belatedly came into a full sense of just how funny he can be. Whatever becomes of the “Jump Street” franchise from here, let no man put this acting partnership asunder.
A raft of unbilled special guest stars add to the generally merry vibe (be sure to stay all the way through the end credits). Consistent with the previous pic, craft contributions are uniformly solid, particularly d.p. Barry Peterson’s widescreen lensing, which emulates the look of the very high-end action spectacles pic lovingly mocks.