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22 Jump Street (2014)

Excessive Use of Recycling

Given 22 Jump Street's running gag about sequels being carbon copy cash-ins of the original ideas that made them possible, it's tempting to simply cut and paste my 2012 review of 21 Jump Street and call it a day. Co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (working from a screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman) don't provide much to talk about beyond their aggressively cute meta-concept, so I wouldn't lose much sleep by simply winking back. 

The trouble is, the new movie doesn't hold a candle to its predecessor, despite being a bigger-budget replica. What made 21 Jump Street so much fun was discovering that Lord and Miller hadn't just turned in a flashy, disposable bit of brand recognition: they made a legitimate action comedy that paid homage to its 80s cop-drama source material--and even improved on it.

All the wonderful things I had to say two years ago are no longer true. The surprises are gone, and though the film's "Previously On..." opener ostensibly ends after a couple minutes, it actually stretches on for another two hours. America's worst undercover cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are recruited to infiltrate a college to bust a student drug ring. Schmidt is still schlubby and smart. Jenko is still fit but dim. Schmidt hooks up with another student while on the job. The main villain is again revealed to be right under the cops' noses--but is not at all who they'd expected. Gun shots. Quips. Explosions. End credits (more on those later).

Before you accuse me of not getting the joke: I fully understand what the creative team was going for here, but the screenwriters, in particular, must shoulder the blame for watering down what should have been either another clever and outrageous commentary--or a movie that never got made in the first place.

Here's the deal: An action scene that simultaneously goes nowhere and takes forever to get there doesn't become retroactively enjoyable by virtue of the characters' remarking about how lousy it was after the fact. 22 Jump Street's opening is a lazy trip down Amnesia Lane, packed with as much suspense and believability as a Warner Brothers cartoon. Our heroes saunter into a deadly Mexican-drug-ring sting with disguises that I might best describe as post-racially racist.* They then engage in a truck chase where Schmidt takes an I-beam to the face at seventy miles an hour--only to bounce back like a reset video game character.

I won't bore you with the rehashed drug trip, the multiple-set-piece Spring Break finale, or the mix-up involving Schmidt's would-be girlfriend (Amber Stevens, who played a much more interesting college co-ed on ABC Family's Greek five years ago). The movie played like an hour-and-fifty-two minutes of knock-knock jokes--only three of which wrung a chuckle out of me before the very end.

The closing credits on this thing are inspired, flashing forward to the boys' increasingly outrageous franchise adventures. From med school to military school and, eventually, space (of course), 22 Jump Street ends with beautiful promotional artwork and brainy belly-laughs at the actors' expense. It's as if the film had gone so deep undercover as a crappy, by-the-numbers sequel that it forgot to take off the disguise until crawling into bed. Sadly, fans of new and intelligent comedy** will likely want to see this criminal misfire hauled off to movie jail.

*The movie smears fine lines left and right, using this flimsy notion as cover: If clearly non-racist artists use racist stereotypes in their art, then the work itself cannot be construed as racist. In this movie, we're asked to forgive Latino gang banging stereotypes and one of the most embarrassing scenes in Ice Cube's career--in which he erupts in the kind of cartoonish "black rage" that is neither funny, helpful, nor insightful (the actress playing his wife in the scene speaks more to African Americans' roles in white-dominated buddy comedies by virtue of who she is and the fact that she's given practically nothing to say).

This logic also extends to the filmmakers' hazy stance on homosexuality. 22 Jump Street is rife with innuendo and wacky situations that suggest Schmidt and Jenko are latently gay. But they're played off with the same kind of not-really acceptance of the lifestyle that makes me wonder just whom the filmmakers were laughing at. There's a moment towards the end, where a thug drops "the other f-bomb" and gets the kind of over-wrought PSA response that comes from publicists instead of people. It felt to me like a particularly dry straw-man, set up to make sure the creators had an "out" for the rest of the film's outdated and unfunny views on social progress.

**No, intelligent comedy and dumb comedy don't have to be mutually exclusive.

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