The beauty of the Jump Street franchise is its inherent reasons to be lousy, that everyone involved brazenly embraces. Seldom does any movie series so freely point out what a bad idea it seems to be.
When the comedy clicks, it's masterfully meta. If the jokes fall flat, well, what did you expect? It's a movie based on a TV show and they hardly ever work. Each gag is therefore a pre-emptive strike against being disliked. It's brilliant.
The flaw propelling 22 Jump Street is that it's a sequel. "Do the same thing as last time, everyone's happy," a cranky police captain (Nick Offerman) orders Jenko and Schmidt, the comfortably dumb cop buddies played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Then the movie mostly does, and he's right.
It's another designer drug ring being investigated, this time on a college campus where Jenko and Schmidt being older than everyone else is still obvious. Finding the dealer whose product killed a student is a mystery never getting in the way of a decent dumb joke. Like a tattoo clue that's a red herring. Really.
Much of the narrative stems from friction in Jenko and Schmidt's relationship, each following leads to different college experiences. For Jenko (Tatum) it's a frat house and football, with a teammate (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt) who's a prime suspect. Schmidt (Hill) schlumps into the art majors' bohemian turf and a hookup (Amber Stevens) with a creepily deadpan roommate (the very funny Jillian Bell).
The college material doesn't draw half as much laughter as Offerman's sardonic observations of sequel protocol, and Ice Cube's pressure cooked turn as Jenko and Schmidt's superior officer, with ample reason to blow his top. Or the demented prison cameos by Rob Riggle and Dave Franco, serving time for the first movie.
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are better known for madcap animation like The LEGO Movie, and occasionally treat their human stars similarly. Action set pieces have a Looney Tunes edge, with enough violent sight gags and spontaneous combustions to make Wile E. Coyote cringe.
22 Jump Street is a mixed bag of clever spoofery and miscalculated outrageousness. The unveiled homoeroticism of practically all interaction between Jenko and Schmidt is amusing to the point when it isn't. It's distracting and mildly disingenuous after Hill's recent apology for tossing a homophobic slur at a paparazzo. Other jokes involving Tracy Morgan and Maya Angelou further serve as examples of poor comic timing.
Better to mine the bromantic chemistry between Tatum and Hill, an odd couple physically, conjoined at the funny bone. They treat each other like one's Tom Hanks and the other's Meg Ryan, several IQs points lower. Their low blows and malapropisms alone — "I thought we had Cate Blanchett on this assignment," when Jenko means "carte blanche" — bear repeating in impolite company.
Be sure to stick around for the end credits, providing a solid ending to a so-so comedy. The bit shows the Jump Street franchise's future, from 23 to 41, busting crooks in schools from seminary to veterinarian, with video games and cartoons to boot. I think Lord and Miller are joking. Nothing should be put past them.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.