This week's top pick is one of the year's biggest box office and critical successes - "22 Jump Street". It's the second smash hit of the year for the directing pair of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (after "The Lego Movie") and it's clear that they're not resting on their laurels. Unlike some other sequels, this film raises the stakes while still retaining the positive attributes of its predecessor.
We meet up with our main characters Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) some time after their successful crime-solving in the previous film. Amusingly, they're still dorks, seemingly idle in their day-to-day job. This "normalization" of our heroes gets the film to a hilarious running start, as they botch an assignment involving a gang of drug dealers. It's a comforting reminder that these are the same nitwits that we grew to love in the first film.
Somehow, their Deputy Chief (Nick Offerman) still have faith in them though, assigning them another undercover mission with clear similarities to their previous big case. They are tasked with posing as college students (instead of high school) in order to catch a supplier of a drug called WHYPHY, which lead to the death of one of the students. This new operation is now based at the upgraded 22 Jump Street, just across the road from their former base.
As the film sets up the premise, the plot seems blatantly familiar (infiltrate an academic setting to stop a drug dealer). In one of the most clever "meta" moments, the film itself acknowledges this. Offerman could be mistaken for a studio executive as he explains that their improbable prior success encouraged those in command to throw more money at them, in hopes of having the same results. As such, it simultaneously comments on the audacity of attempting to replicate the plan, while also poking fun at our current "sequel culture" in cinema. In one fell swoop therefore, Lord and Miller have already anticipated the critics' predictable accusations of this sequel being a mere cash grab. It's a major gauntlet to throw down, so do they back it with something of genuine value?
Well, as I've already stated in the opening of the review, the answer is a resounding yes. Make no mistake, the basic narrative foundation remains the same, but almost every other aspect is developed further - the action, the characterizations, the comedy and most importantly the bromance. This is a film franchise that knows exactly where its strengths lie. The casting is simply perfect, showing off the unique gifts of Hill and Tatum. For Hill, it's his incredible skill with hilarious expressions/line readings and unexpected sensitivity (he's even more endearing in this film). For Tatum, it's his physicality (amped up to near-superhuman levels this time around) and ability to project the dumb jock intelligence to go with it. Together they have perfect chemistry, resulting in the most sincere bromance since "Swingers".
For someone who's a major fan of that 1996 Jon Favreau gem, you can consider that a major compliment. "22 Jump Street" truly lives up to it though and that's what makes it stand out. For all the riotous slapstick and superbly directed action scenes, the film's most vital component turns out to be its big heart. So when Schmidt and Jenko unintentionally go through couples therapy after a conflict of opinion, there's not a hint of homophobic mockery to be found. On the surface, this is a "bro movie" with raunchy humour and awesome stunts, but at its core it's a rather sweet exploration of a level of male friendship that we rarely see on film.
With this deft balancing act of true emotion and typical summer thrills, Lord and Miller have once again delivered something with broad appeal. Is it better than "21 Jump Street"? It's tough to say, since it owes so much to that pre-existing template. Heck, it may just be an enjoyable but unoriginal cash grab as I'm sure many will argue. All I know is, "22 Jump Street" is one helluva good time at the movie theater.