As a general rule, I'm not a fan of comedy sequels. Far too often, they content themselves with banging out the same jokes as prior entries, lazily relying on simple familiarity being enough to elicit a chuckle from audiences rather than actually doing the work of earning those laughs. That's where the Austin Powers trilogy tripped itself up, as did the Meet the Parents saga. Thus, when the box office success enjoyed by 2012's 21 Jump Street immediately assured a follow-up, I was understandably hesitant.
Then again, I can't say I was exactly doing cartwheels when I first heard that a Jump Street movie was in the development pipeline, either. And not because I had any great passion for the 1987-1991 TV series, mind you. I just didn't see a lot of upside in turning a forgettable-if-not-forgotten artifact of the parachute pants era, more notable as the launchpad for Johnny Depp's career (and the thing he couldn't get away from fast enough) than anything else, into a feature film, much less one starring Superbad and G.I. Joe. But wouldn't you know, when I finally ended up watching, I laughed. A lot.
Somehow, co-writer/producer/star Jonah Hill turned me around thanks to his fresh take on the hoary concept of undercover cops in high school, and in the process turned me into an unabashed Channing Tatum fan after I was pretty much ready to write the guy off (heck, I'm the one guy who liked last summer's White House Down!). So here we are two years later, and the new film's prime mid-summer real estate (as opposed to the early spring release date for the first one) speaks volumes about its sudden importance as a franchise for Sony Pictures. Luckily for them, 22 Jump Street manages the rare feat of being a sequel that's just as good as its predecessor.
Directed once again by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (whose smash hit The Lego Movie also hits home vid next Tuesday -- not a bad year these guys are having!), 22 Jump Street (the new address, by the way, thanks to our heroes getting kicked across the street from the abandoned church that the first movie -- and the TV series, natch -- occupied), has buddy cops Greg Jenko (Tatum) and Morton Schmidt (Hill) back doing the undercover adolescent thing -- this time in college -- to track down the dealers of a new drug called Why-Phy (sounds like wi-fi).
What follows is a lot of comedic antics in the same vein as the previous film, a lot of relationship stuff in the same vein as the previous film, and a lot of action beats in the same vein as the previous film. Okay, so it sounds like I'm contradicting myself given what I said about comedy sequels in my first paragraph. But what makes 22 Jump Street work isn't that it hits the exact same notes as movie one, but rather that it finds some new variations on those same notes -- all the while making sure to point out that, hey, they're playing the same notes. And it works.
The filmmakers are obviously acutely aware of what a minefield it can be when attempting to sequelize a successful comedy (helpfully lampshaded via a very funny prologue with the returning Nick Offerman), so they seem intent on playing with those tropes. And just as the high school setting last time saw Jenko and Schmidt (once again undercover as mismatched brothers Greg and Brad McQuaid) dealing with residual angst from their pre-police lives as dumb jock and picked-on nerd, respectively, 22 Jump Street's college assignment has both contemplating where their lives would have gone in had they not chosen to live out imaginary lives.
With Jenko bonding with football jock Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell & Goldie Hawn) and Schmidt finding love with a co-ed named Maya (Amber Stevens), there's a delicate balancing act on our leading actors' part that keeps their characters juuuust this side of a parody without toppling over. Also great in an expanded role is Ice Cube as the perpetually-peeved captain in charge of the Jump Street division. Without giving anything away, Jenko and Schmidt's investigation ends up taking a particular turn that ends up inadvertently roping in Cube's Dickson, resulting in a hilarious bit that I daren't spoil here.
While I doubt it'll turn the dial for anyone who didn't dig the first flick, I fully expect 22 Jump Street to be embraced by the same auds that made the first one the smash that it was. And while I enjoyed the sequel immensely, I also think this may pretty much be the final word on this series (something the film itself implicitly acknowledges during the end credits). A running gag throughout is that the characters look just a little long-in-the-tooth to believably play these roles, and that's probably something the actors should heed as well before we end up about 23 Jump Street in a few years. B+