A (perhaps unpopular) confession: I didn't much care for 21 Jump Street, a rowdy bromance that sent fully grown cops Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum back to high school and came back with something every bit as throwaway as the semi-forgotten pop-cultural nothing that inspired it. Clearly, however, its randomness struck a chord with the world's yoof - shruggingly improvised, it was a comedy with downtime enough for texting or making out - and so we have the sequel 22 Jump Street, which almost inevitably sends the leads on to college in the hope of catching a drug dealer, and more or less does the same thing all over again. Only better.
The conjunction of 22 Jump Street and Edge of Tomorrow in multiplexes suggests that the studios have, at long last, wised up to the fact they've begun to repeat themselves, and started to seek out smarter ways of going about it. Almost 50% of the scenes and set-ups in 22 Jump Street are there to winkingly remind us we are watching a sequel: whole characters - Nick Offerman's Deputy Chief Hardy, Ice Cube's Captain Dickson - are recalled just to comment on the fact that a good deal more money has been spent on what's effectively the same old plot. (Cube, suddenly finding himself surrounded by needless gadgets and gizmos, points out he's wearing $800 shoes that nobody can see behind his desk.)
There's an appreciable degree of I-can't-believe-we're-getting-away-with-this glee in this stance, and the heightened self-reflexivity serves to mitigate against the rowdiness of the original, made when directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were presumably thought of by their Sony bosses as hired hands entrusted to deliver 'plex-ready comedy product, rather than as the idiosyncratic curators of The Lego Movie. Opening with a lecture on the yin/yang divide, this is a film of constructive, corrective partnerships, and whenever its instincts take it towards the brawny and noisy - default settings of so much contemporary comedy - its creative side intervenes: a thumping defensive tackle inspires the priceless ADR "Fuck you, you little walk-on fuck", while a diversion to an open-mic poetry night establishes a relevant ongoing riff on the difference between improv and writing shit down.
The trick the new film pulls off is to accommodate all this wise-assery and still play on some emotionally satisfying level as a conventional buddy-cop movie. It wouldn't fly as it does without Hill and Tatum, who - through sheer hard work - have matured immeasurably as performers since the last film, and here prove funnier together than they've ever been individually. Their mutual dependency is so persuasive that, when convention dictates the two must part ways at the end of the second act, Lord and Miller almost don't need to layer John Waite's "Missing You" over the subsequent estrangement montage to get us eagerly awaiting the eventual reunion. I wouldn't have considered writing this after the first movie, but these guys really are made for one another.
The approach is both anything-goes and generally open-minded, a liberation not just for the performers but also the filmmakers, who can fold genre-specific tensions back into the plot (Tatum's signed up to a Human Sexuality course, and gets pissed when one of the bad guys uses a homophobic slur) and frame a final-act instance of male-on-female violence in a way that's not just very smart in how it circumvents offence, but exceptionally funny to watch. Possibly Lord and Miller are merely reinventing one of those wheels that have always made the box-office go round, but in its more consistent stretches, 22 Jump Street takes on the shape and feel of the second season of a potentially great sitcom: the cast have gelled, the rhythms have been found, and the directors now know how to make even the more arcane business work. My colleagues have expressed collective adoration for the Cate Blanchett joke; I'll confess I found the tossed-off Benny Hill reference even more cherishable.
22 Jump Street is in cinemas nationwide.