’22 Jump Street’ Self-Reflexively Confronts Sequelitis

22 Jump Street

Though the sun has yet to reach its highest point, the season of summer, for all intents and purposes, is already underway. Summer, a time for tropical vacations, staying out in the sun too long and other outdoorsy things of that nature, also happens to be the time of year that the most amount of people venture inside air conditioned movie theaters to waste spend their money on (overblown) blockbusters and (overpriced) popcorn. Year after year, we, the moviegoers, get to pore through a glut of unasked-for reboots, unnecessary sequels and unoriginal schlock. 22 Jump Street, a near carbon copy of a sequel to a reboot of a television series, actually manages to be all of these things. On paper, that’s the recipe for the most uninspiring Hollywood garbage imaginable. (You know, kind of like Transformers: Age of…Oh My God, Didn’t We Just Do This?) But it’s these seemingly unsavory ingredients that are a large part of what makes 22 Jump Street so much fun – and thus far,the sequel of the summer.

22 Jump Street, unlike so many of the other over-hyped sequels of the past (and present), knows exactly what it is. To put it simply, it’s a hilariously elaborate and paradoxical joke. The joke, of course, is that the movie shouldn’t even exist, and everyone involved in the movie goes to great lengths to let you know that they’re in on it. You see – and you might already know this, but it must be said anyway – 21 Jump Street was originally a late-80s television police procedural. It featured (somewhat) youthful looking cops going undercover in high schools to solve crimes. It was a silly premise that its creators treated very seriously, and for that, the show’s unwavering moral compass and its charming cast, it became beloved. But it certainly had no place in the year 2012. That is, unless it was rebooted with a razor-sharp script, likable leads that could play off of each other with genuine chemistry and an unexpected dose of self-awareness.

In the delightful and wickedly funny first film, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum starred as mismatched buddy cops who are sent back to the high school they attended to infiltrate a gang of popular kids and track down the source of a deadly drug, Just as Johnny Depp and Co.’s characters once did way back when). Whereas Hill’s short, chubby and nerdy Schmidt fears he’ll fall right back into his role of an outcast, Tatum’s tall, sculpted and positively dimwitted Jenko can’t wait to be a popular kid again. But when they return, they find that their roles have been reversed in their years away. Schmidt’s social consciousness gets him an invite to hang with the cool kids, while Jenko’s boorish attitude has fallen out of fashion. The change in dynamic between the partners inevitably causes friction between the two, but in the end it all works out pretty well. After they catch their man and become heroes, Schmidt and Jenko get their next assignment from their perpetually barking police captain (Ice Cube). As it turns out, those “two sons of bitches” are going to college, cleanly setting the table for the nonsensically titled 22 Jump Street.

Inthe sequel, it more or less plays out exactly the same way; Michael Bacall and Oren Uziel’s script recycles the overall plot of the 21 Jump Street, which can be summed up by Schmidt’s rundown of the duo’s plan: “We’ll go to all of the classes and activities, ask about the drug, find out who the dealer is”. Everybody knows the plan going in, so it takes the pressure off of the film’s writers, as well as the film’s rising directors (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, also the directors of this past February’s The Lego Movie) to come up with some new ridiculous premise or plot contrivance. It’s simple; all they have to do is switch out the who’s, what’s and where’s and they have enough for a profitable run-of-the-mill sequel. It’s exactly what The Hangover Part II did in 2011 to – despite scathing reviews – net nearly $600 million. The thing is, though, no one involved in 22 Jump Street wanted it to be another kind-of-dumb, run-of-the-mill Hollywood sequel, and they certainly didn’t want it to be anything like The Hangover Part II. Instead, they took the trappings of what it takes to make a sequel, and doubled down on the satire and the self-parody of it, all the while finding new ways to subvert and comment on a whole new laundry list of hackneyed tropes found in both fiction and real life.

Once they enroll at the aptly named MC State (often pronounced “Mc,” an allusion to its generic and corporatized nature), Schmidt and Jenko’s roles switch once again. Jenko, the chemistry-loving nerd in the first film, is back on familiar ground. Now, it’s he whose sensibilities are revered by the in-crowd, who are all hard-partying, hard-drinking frat bros. Schmidt, on the other hand, falls in with the more artsy-fartsy types. Like in the first film, how others view them changes their relationship dynamic. After they finish settling in to dorm life, a process that includes a clever montage in which the duo runs down their checklist of all of the dorm “essentials” that you rarely use in reality, Schmidt and Jenko conspire to join a fraternity in order to chase down a vague lead on the drug source. Although they welcome Jenko’s macho man routine with open arms – this is a guy who can open a beer bottle with every part of his body we’re talking about here! – they mostly shun Schmidt’s awkward, dependent and completely full of shit self. He copes by engaging in a relationship with a gorgeous art major named Maya (Amber Stevens), whom he’s initially drawn to because of their mission. Later, he becomes a little distracted by her charms – and learns in hilarious and dramatic fashion that there’s something crucial that he doesn’t know about her – but it’s nothing in comparison to what happens to Jenko.

Jonah Hill

Early on, Jenko develops a bromantic bond with a potential suspect named “Zook” and it drives a sizable wedge in his friendship with Schmidt. The two meet when Jenko’s Q-Tip falls between the buns of Zook’s sandwich, a play on the romantic comedy cliché, the meet-cute. Zook (played by Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) is a weightlifting obsessive, who happens to be both the star quarterback of the university’s football team and the bro-iest bro of all of the bros. He’s the embodiment of every negative stereotype you can hear about that kind of college student. He cares about getting fucked up, getting laid, getting ripped and scoring touchdowns – and that’s it. It’s not so much that that makes him a bad guy; it’s just that the movie depicts how his lifestyle can appear so alluring at first – you have to admit, it sounds pretty carefree, doesn’t it? – and slowly shows how empty it becomes after a while. After winning the big game, he ecstatically screams, “This is the best moment of my entire life!” With one line, the film effectively sends up all of the sports movies in which on-field victories are sold as the pinnacle of all of life achievements. These are the kinds of mini-but-potent digs that the movie excels at in short bursts.

Jenko Zook

Another reliable source of the movie’s humor, without going into too much detail, is the co-dependent nature of Jenko and Schmidt’s relationship. Despite being two straight guys, Jenko and Schmidt’s business partnership forces them to depend on each other in ways that are reminiscent of a more traditional romantic relationship. When it becomes clear that the case isn’t following the same pattern as the first film, Jenko uses rhetoric familiar to anyone who’s ever tried and failed to get back together with their ex. “Maybe we should investigate other people,” he says, “Maybe we we’re only supposed to do this once.” In context, Jenko’s referring to their relationship, but in a meta-context Tatum is once again arguing against the existence of the very movie in which he’s starring.

Although that kind of joke is both clever and funny, some critics have asserted that it ultimately weighs the movie down. If the movie would have focused a little more on the heart of the story, they have said, then it could have been of the same quality as the first one. That’s hard to argue with, to an extent; however, it’s pretty clear that, no matter how similar it seems, this sequel had no interest in hitting the exact same notes as the first one. Even so, some have accused Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s distinct brand of self-awareness to be a little too knowing, a little too smug. 22 Jump Street certainly has its smug moments, but they never prevent anything from being funny; they generally seem to add to the hilarity. And it’s not like that’s their only move. In fact, the movie is jam-packed with so many different kinds of jokes – meta jokes and cultural critiques, yes, but also word play, verbal barbs, gross out humor, visual gags and slapstick galore – that it rivals the joke rate and joke diversity of a top episode of 30 Rock.

For 22 Jump Street, comedian turned character actor Jonah Hill seamlessly sunk back into the dweeby, faux-badassery of Schmidt, and the affable Channing Tatum, again, tempered his movie star charisma with endearing goofiness for the role of Jenko. Their chemistry together has a way of making you want to see more of them; it makes you think you’d gladly file back into theaters every couple of summers just to see them re-team. It’s how we got here in the first place, after all. The gut-busting and increasingly absurd end credits, however, show that the talented creators behind 22 Jump Street are well aware of just how easy it would be to make that happen, and perhaps more importantly, the dangers that would come along with it.

22 Jump Street Big Guns\

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

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