At some point, the meta magic of filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller is going to wear so thin it can’t hold up a flimsy excuse for a movie concept, but the inevitable erosion hasn’t happened yet. Mere months after their astonishing and daring subversion of the corporate synergy movie model turned The Lego Movie into the most unlikely critical hit in ages (the film’s commercial success, while more impressive than expected, wasn’t exactly in doubt) they’ve returned with a sequel to 2012’s television show adaptation 21 Jump Street, itself a headlong dive into the rabbit hole of mocking self-awareness. Cheekily titled 22 Jump Street (the undercover operation’s headquarters has moved across the street), the sequel is about being a sequel, including allusions to an increased budget and in-character insistence that the everyone involved simply concentrate of repeating prior successes rather than branching out into new, untested endeavors. There are other inside jokes–about the office resided in by Ice Cube’s returning Captain Dickson, different films featuring the stars that were released between the two installments of the franchise–but there’s no mistaking that the predominant comedic concern is what it means to return to a creative well, capped off by a flurry of fiendishly relevant gags that unroll with the end credits.
Cleverness doesn’t always lead directly to accomplishment, however. While 22 Jump Street is enjoyable, it’s also fairly slapdash, a quality that is entirely at odds with the focus Lord and Miller have necessarily shown with their animated features. This is part the curse of the modern comedy, a branch of filmmaking that celebrates and rewards unchecked improvisation and discarded discipline as long as they lead to the desired punchline. It’s fine to call attention to a character’s arbitrary use of a Q-tip in the service of setting up a punny joke, but the nudge-nudge knowingness on display doesn’t negate the sheer laziness of the moment. The filmmakers get by with a lot simply because the two leads are so game. Jonah Hill still manages to find some nuance in the same aggressive, vulnerable man child he plays in essentially every movie that doesn’t earn him an Oscar nomination. Channing Tatum is the real MVP, though, showing off a true gift for comedy that’s enhanced by his natural ease in front of the camera. And I’ll admit that I never knew that I needed to see Ice Cube unleash his otherwise quelled gangsta rage against a posh brunch buffet, but I definitely did.
Still, for all my complaints about sloppiness, one of the main sensations I had while watching 22 Jump Street was an appreciation to see a movie made by creators who were clearly trying to deliver something different. Maybe it’s my regular excursions into the writing of my distant past, when my main moviegoing was dictated by the need to fill a weekly radio program with the middling fare that was dribbling into my modest Midwestern town, but I couldn’t help think of how easy it would have been for the filmmakers to slough off any aspirations towards originality, even the originality of acknowledging repetition. Instead, this sequel is at least in the hands of those who want to redeem hackneyed and hopeless storytelling opportunities, indeed whose whole notoriety has been built on solving that unappealing challenge. If they haven’t entirely cracked that problem, Lord and Miller have wrung surprising value out of trying.