The peculiar sweetness of "21 Jump Street" has taken a hiatus in "22 Jump Street," a brazen sequel that's both slightly disappointing and a reliable, often riotous "laffer" in the old Variety trade-magazine parlance. No question about it, I laffed, more at the little things — Channing Tatum trying to cut glass with a laser pointer, for example — than the brawls.
And now it's crow-eating time. For a long time I misjudged Channing Tatum's abilities; not too many films ago I assumed he'd always be luckier than he is talented. But the former dancer was and is smart enough to work with filmmakers — Steven Soderbergh on "Haywire" and "Magic Mike," or Bennett Miller on the forthcoming "Foxcatcher" — who have helped him figure out how to communicate on camera effectively.
Two summers ago "21 Jump Street" didn't hurt Tatum either. His fortuitous pairing with Jonah Hill on that clever satiric reboot of the undercover-cops TV series made him an even hotter commodity. Now we have the sequel, directed once again by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, working from a script by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman. In a hit-and-run movie like this, the throwaway jokes are the ones you're glad they kept. Why is there an "Annie Hall" reference? What good does a six-second Benny Hill tribute possibly do "22 Jump Street"? There's no reason a sequel containing this many gags about how lame sequels usually are should work at all. But Lord and Miller turn their comic approach into a religion: the Church of Self-Referentialism.
In the first movie Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) infiltrated a high school to root out a designer drug dealer. "22 Jump Street" tests the bond of this police partnership when the boy-men are assigned to work undercover, again as brothers, this time at a college where a new designer drug has claimed at least one life.
The best idea in the first movie was its simplest. Watching the insecure bully Jenko cope with the newly tolerant high school ecosystem of the present day meant the character had someplace to go. Schmidt, by contrast, the perpetual misfit, suddenly found himself in with the in-crowd of dorks and nerds and liberal arts misfits, newly ascendant in the social firmament.
In "22 Jump Street" they're back in their familiar grooves, for better or worse. An instant star on the college football field, Jenko falls into a fast friendship with a fraternity god and potential suspect, played by Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn). Meanwhile Schmidt lands in clover with art student Maya (Amber Stevens), whom he meets at a campus open-mike event, where he dazzles/confuses her with his improvised slam poetry, rhyming "Jesus cried" with "Runaway Bride." Ice Cube returns, angrier than ever (for a shrewdly plotted reason) as the boys' superior officer.
The best of the movie, which tacks on a spring-break climax filmed in Puerto Rico, works incrementally and off-the-plot, paying its biggest dividends the closer it sticks to the college dorm. Across the hall from Jenko and Schmidt, there's another brother act, this one with real brothers: the hilarious identical twins and comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas, who treat the movie to a "jinx, you owe me a Coke" routine that is truly wonderful. (I could've watched these two all night.) A frat-house break-in becomes a string of lovely, stupid bits contrasting Jenko's reckless stupidity with Schmidt's safety-first ethos. Be sure to hang around for the closing credits, which imagine all sorts of "Jump Street" sequels to come, all of which look funnier than "A Million Ways to Die in the West."