“22 Jump Street” is a hugely enjoyable shambles. It’s a comic deconstruction of that most useless of Hollywood artifacts — the blockbuster sequel — that refuses to take itself seriously on any level, which, face it, is just what we need as the summer boom-boom season shifts into high gear. When directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller turned “21 Jump Street” into a crude but unexpectedly clever box office hit in 2012, their mockery of the original late-1980s TV show was offset by the corporate need to revive and tend to a dormant franchise. No such agenda this time: “22 Jump Street” just wants to mess around and explode the clichés of the buddy-cop bromance genre from within. The movie takes a while to lift off, but once it does, it soars on wings of pure, dopey silliness.
“The LEGO Movie” having conquered critics and audiences earlier this year, Lord and Miller are on a roll, and there may be no better moviemakers at playing to our modern need for irony — at giving us the entertainment we crave while acknowledging our distrust of it. Early in “22 Jump Street,” a minor character warns the undercover heroes played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum that “It’s always worse the second time around — a slow, painful unraveling” while their commanding officer (Ice Cube) just instructs them, “Do the same thing as last time. Exactly the same thing.”
Not quite: Now officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) have to pose as college students rather than high school kids, their mission to ferret out the dealers of a new hallucinogen called WhyPhy (as in “Wi-Fi,” not “wiffy,” as Jenko initially pronounces it). The imposture doesn’t fool anyone. “I’m 19,” insists the 30-ish Schmidt to a student, who drily responds, “Nineteen minutes late to pinochle. Tell me about the war. Any war.”
The movie’s plot hardly matters to start with and it breaks down entirely as “22 Jump Street” embarks on a series of verbal riffs and visual mind games, like an inspired fusion of “Hellzapoppin’,” MAD magazine, a Road Runner cartoon, and a YouTube feed left open all night. There are tart nods to modern college life — Schmidt enduring the morning Shame Walk back to his dorm after hooking up with a pretty classmate (Amber Stevens); a brief but exuberant celebration of pop-up laundry hampers and other campus staples — and an ability to simultaneously parody and uphold politically correct speech. After time spent in a Human Sexuality class, Jenko earnestly asks his partner, “Did you know I used gay slurs in high school? I didn’t even know I was a homophone.” (Given his crass outburst to a paparazzo recently, Hill probably wishes the filmmakers could write his real-life dialogue.)
Everyone seems to be dancing along the same anarchic wavelength: stars, directors, screenwriters Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, even composer Mark Mothersbaugh, whose score wryly channels ’80s thwomp and action-movie power chords. Ice Cube has a splendid slapstick tantrum at a buffet table — the movie generously follows him into the next room and lets him rip — and the playful use of split-screen extends to a trip sequence that finds Schmidt and Jenko bumming and blissing on opposite sides of the frame. Lord and Miller approach commercial cinema not as a profit center to be leveraged but a Silly Putty canvas to stretch until it snaps.
In its second half, as Schmidt the nerd and Jenko the jock find themselves splitting into separate friend groups, “22 Jump Street” brings the romantic subtext of buddy movies (a traditionally panicky subject for both characters and audiences) out of the closet and into the cleansing comic light of day. “Maybe . . . maybe we should just investigate different people,” suggests Jenko, who has found dude rapture with his football teammate and fellow half-wit Zook (Wyatt Russell). The movie doesn’t exactly ignore its female characters — a gloriously deadpan Jillian Bell goes toe-to-toe with Hill in the movie’s antic Spring Break climax — but it knows the guys have more emotional work to do.
Even when “22 Jump Street” shifts to a pro forma chase scene in its final moments, the level of invention stays high, and an end-credits sequence that imagines where things might go from here is a brilliant put-down of Hollywood group think (and our own catering to it) and a miniature comedy masterpiece in its own right. This is the kind of movie that knows the manly hero has to yell something cool when he throws the grenade — I think it’s the First Law of Bruce Willis — so it might as well be “Something cool!” Lord and Miller simultaneously give us the pleasures of the text and the meta-text, and stupid has rarely seemed so smart.
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