Earlier this year, Muppets Most Wanted kicked off with a big song and dance number titled "We're Doing a Sequel." (Sample lyrics: "There’s no need to disguise/The studio considers us a viable franchise/We’re doing a sequel/How hard can it be?/We can’t do any worse than The Godfather 3.") It was one of the high points of the movie, a funny and self-aware commentary on the fact that sequels are never as good as the original film. But the funny thing is, even though the filmmakers chose to refer to the fact that sequels almost always fail, they also forgot to make a great sequel. Referring to why sequels fail didn't make the movie any better. It just warned the audience to lower their expectations.
I bring all that up as a way of explaining that 22 Jump Street is basically a full-length movie version of the "We're Doing a Sequel" song. It's maybe the world's first completely self-aware sequel, packed with jokes about the bloated budget of sequels, the tendency of sequels to stick with the same formula as the original film, and a host of other winks and nods to the sequel-making process. That probably shouldn't be much of a surprise, since it's directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who made this year's self-aware kids film The Lego Movie and the self-premise-skewering 21 Jump Street. Some of these jokes are a little too obvious. Others are sly. Many of them are quite funny. But man there are a lot of them, pretty much all the way through. We know you're a sequel. We got it. Maybe you're protesting a little too much?
The plot, as characters point out all the way through, is basically an unimaginative rehash of the first Jump Street movie. Police officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are assigned to a college to bust up a designer drug ring. While 21 Jump Street had some pleasant and positive observations to make about the difference between high school in the 90s and today—the whole movie seemed to be astonished that kids are better people now than they were fifteen or twenty years ago—22 Jump Street just mines the same old college cliches for laughs. And the scene where Jenko calls out a criminal for using a homophobic slur doesn't absolve 22 Jump Street of its plentiful scenes of gay panic and trans panic, either.
Don't get me wrong: This is a funny movie. Channing Tatum is as charming in comedic roles as ever, with his ready willingness to play the butt of a dozen dumb-hottie jokes. He's got an easy chemistry with Jonah Hill, who pulls off quite a few great moments of his own. Ice Cube has one incredible bit that has to be right up there with the best things he's done in movies. The Lucas Brothers steal a couple scenes. There's plenty of physical comedy, dick jokes, and situational gags, and there's a final montage that's so gonzo, so alive with tiny jokes, that I'm probably going to watch the movie again just to see all the stuff I missed because I was too busy laughing the first time. I laughed pretty much all the way through 22 Jump Street. It's not quite as funny as 21 Jump Street, but it's still plenty funny. The problem is that it's not as good a movie as 21 Jump Street. The villain is underdeveloped, the plot wastes time setting up situations that don't bear any fruit later on in the film, and there are no real female characters to speak of. Just because you use meta humor to address the lack of imagination in the premise of the film doesn't mean your film gets a pass for being unimaginative. Instead, you're even more likely to become the kind of bloated, lazy, unimaginative movie you're busy trying to mock.