Submission is one of the foundations of mass culture: If you club them, they will come. The pop-culture savants behind “22 Jump Street” comprehend this so well they’ve folded this ethos into the film, which is bookended by self-amused references to its status as franchise fodder. Schmidt (Mr. Hill) and Jenko (Mr. Tatum) enter with their chief, Hardy (Nick Offerman), announcing that they’ve been tapped to reproduce their first success. “Nobody cared about the Jump Street reboot”, Hardy deadpans, gazing at the folks while winking at the camera. But since it worked, “this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going”.
Thus it goes in “22 Jump Street”, which returns Schmidt and Jenko to school, this time for a stint in college. There, at the fictional, MC State (one billion apparently underserved), the two work their assignment investigating a new designer drug while exploring new interests and friends. Jenko quickly bonds with a quarterback, Zook (Wyatt Russell), a dumb blond cut from the same cut up cloth as Jeff Spicoli, the stoner from “Quick Times at Ridgemont High”, while Schmidt cuddles with a fetching young lady, Maya (Amber Stevens). The zingers ricochet in the midst of knowing college movie clichés and memorable turns from Keith and Kenny Lucas, as a tag-team duo called the Yangs, and particularly a fearless Jillian Bell as Mercedes, Maya’s petulant-in-pink roomie.
Of course, the focus stays fixed on Schmidt and Jenko, who take turns doing the Goofus and Gallant bit. The past of what made ’21 Jump Street” work was the way it played Mr. Hill and Mr. Tatum’s characters against their off-screen personas: In 2012, Schmidt rode the geek nation wave and even scored romantically, while Jenko the jock felt the sting of dismissal. The new movie to some degree inverts that dynamic even as it keeps on draining jokes about who’s popular and not. It’s an odd coupling that still tickles a comedy sweet spot partly because both actors are naturally likable and seem to be having a good time. It helps that they look funny together, resembling nothing so much as a sideways exclamation point, with Mr. Tatum’s vertically complementing Mr. Hill’s spherically.
It’s nothing unexpected then that Mr. Hill can approximate a cannonball convincingly, yet he also gets mileage out of stillness, as when he drains his face of emotion and widens his eyes, a bit of business that shows how Schmidt is, with total guile, trying to fake honesty. At rest, Mr. Tatum, with his half-mast eyes and a neck as big as a redwood trunk, can bring to mind Ferdinand the Bull, the Spanish peacenik who prefers to sit and flowers instead of fight. Like a lot of musclemen, Mr. Tatum can look almost captive to his body, which makes his grace all the more pleasurable, as in a wittily choreographed fight that’s part jitterbug dance off, part wrestling match.
Perhaps as befits their increases celebrity, Mr. Tatum, and Mr. Hill spend considerable time apart in the story, which siphons some comedy from the possibility that Schmidt and Jenko’s bromance may be going through a rough patch. While Jenko frolics with Zook, Schmidt plays the spurned partner, a setup that permits the film all the while to mock and exploit the conventions of both the traditional light hearted comedy and the bromance. As in the first film, the guiding comic principle here remains the appearance of ironic detachment followed by an assertion of sincerity that’s as appealing as it is disingenuous. It’s a destabilizing strategy that allows the filmmakers to have their cake and scarf it too, as when Jenko rails against a homophobic slur that’s already been deployed.
Much like the jokes around “22 Jump Street” being a franchise, this sort of doubling flatters the viewer, who, in the wake of being pulled in as a paying customer, is recruited as a comedy co-conspirator. (In this way, the movie naïvely or not, also mimics the scholastic thought that fans now enjoy unprecedented control of the production and circulation of popular culture). You’re in on the joke, which makes the movie something you watch and root for. In the firs film, the Jump Street operation is restarted, on the grounds that, as Chief Hardy explains, “The guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas”. That may have registered as a dig at the studio controls that be, yet as the continuation attests, it’s truly a smiling affirmation that the guys in charge know precisely what they are doing.
“22 Jump Street” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Adult high jinks.