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It's quickly becoming clear that, more than anything else, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord are masters of the element of surprise. 2012's 21 Jump Street was a surprise hit, a reboot amongst a host of reboots that managed to differentiate itself by subverting the very idea of a reboot.
The pair's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was made under similar circumstances: one of many children's books being optioned for production. Cynics saw the movie's existence as proof of the dumbing-down of Hollywood and the death of originality; instead, the film used the book's plot as the backdrop for humor that rivaled Dreamworks' and heart that rivaled Pixar's.
Miller and Lord are, in a sense, Davids to the Goliaths of corporate heartlessness and calculation—taking movies that should have been dead and empty and soulless and kind of depressing to watch, and infusing them with enough joy and creativity to make everyone leave the theater smiling. (Closing argument: The Lego Movie, which is still one of the best movies of 2014, is the best example of everything good about the directorial duo.) Consider the most frequently used words in reviews of their movies: "Fresh," "inventive," "creative," "joyful," and so on.
However, it seems like Miller and Lord fare a little less well when they're deprived the element of surprise. They also created Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, which, while not a bad movie, failed to break the mold in the same way the original had. Some of their frustration in working with sequels shines through in 22 Jump Street, a movie that's relentlessly self-aware of the fact that movie sequels have to be Bigger, Badder, and More Expensive than their predecessors. It's a fine line to walk, satirizing a sequel's necessary opulence while still indulging in it, and it's not a balance the movie is always able to maintain.
The beginning of 22 Jump Street contains enough twists and self-referential genre nods to fill six paragraphs, so I'll just say this: despite an initial psych-out, cops Tatum and Hill do end up at college, investigating a drug that is about to break out of MC State college ("McState," in one of the film's subtler gags) and go viral.
"Infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier," quips Ice Cube. "Just like last time."
In fact, the line "Exactly like last time" or some variation thereof is said no fewer than four times—just another nod to the movie's extreme awareness that the best way to be a sequel is to simply repeat the first movie, only more expensively. Hill and Tatum have the same identities, Hill has the same romantic subplot, there are similar red herrings, characters re-appear—in fact, the sheer quantity of how many things Miller and Lord have managed to keep the same between this movie and its predecessor is astonishing. And more astonishing still is that it's any fun at all.
I'd guess there's anywhere from two to three times more jokes in 22 than there were in 21 Jump Street. That ends up making the sequel feel about a half-hour longer than the first film, even though its runtime exceeds that of the first by less than ten minutes.
It suffers from a pretty intense case of diminishing returns: three jokes aren't necessarily better than just one, if the one joke is really funny. I laughed through the movie's entire first half, and was ready for the movie to end right around the 3/4 mark, when my stream of laughter had slowed to a trickle, and laughing out loud had turned into guffaws, and then chuckles, and then just blowing air out of my nose.
When Miller and Lord aren't able to surprise, they settle for being able to entertain. While the movie is thoroughly entertaining, filled to the brim with jokes and gags, it never manages to catch you off guard like the first movie did.
Some of that just comes with the territory of being a sequel, but it makes it ironic that, in insisting the sequel is exactly the same thing as the first movie, it ends up being an entirely different kind of thing. 21 Jump Street had six or seven absolutely standout moments, and was generally entertaining in between those segments.
In contrast, 22 Jump Street is always pretty funny, and occasionally very funny. But the sheer amount of noise at play means that nothing stands out quite as much, nothing lands as hard, and the film settles for being generally good rather than occasionally spectacular . . .
. . . Which is exactly the joke, made over and over again. There's very little to say about 22 Jump Street that Miller and Lord haven't already anticipated and critiqued about themselves, within the film. Watching the film anticipate the criticisms people like you and me would level against it—and even respond to them—makes for a fun meta-level movie watching experience. But it starts to wear a little thin towards the end, where critical gamesmanship starts to feel a little bit like insecurity. A project like The Lego Movie suits the duo infinitely better, where they're not being forced to make excuses for themselves, where the film can just stand as itself without having to talk about itself too much.
There's not too much to say about 22 Jump Street—or, that is, there's not much to say that Miller and Lord haven't already said inside the movie. Something I haven't mentioned yet is the movie's persistent irreverence and crudity, including a whole bunch of language. This shouldn't come as a shock to anyone who's seen the first movie, but in case it's unclear: I can't recommend this movie to anyone who can't withstand extensively crude jokes, often to the point of being unjustifiable.
But I guess the only difference between 21 Jump Street and its successor is that I felt conflicted about not being able to recommend the first to some Christian audiences, because the movie as a unit was so exceptional.
I feel no such conflict about not recommending its sequel.
The movie features a spectacular amount of profanity: ~200 f***s, 50 or so s***s, uncountable amounts of third-tier profanities. Admittedly, the swearing never feels as vulgar as it does in something like The Departed (profanities in the service of comedy never do), but still, it can be a bitter pill to swallow. Characters joke around with a sex toy, make jokes about "Vietnamese Jesus," taser private parts, engage in sexual innuendo-laden fight scenes, and more. Two characters sleep together, but we only see them the next morning; a different character goes on at length about their night together in front of the girl's father. A bunch of dudes get shot. There's the expected amount of gay jokes, though none of them feel mean-spirited.
Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. You can read his semi-annually updated Twitter account @jxscott.