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‘22 Jump Street’ makes great comic leaps

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • Published Thursday, June 12, 2014, at 4:49 p.m.

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Review

‘22 Jump Street’

* * * 

Rating: R for language, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity, violence

Starring: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill

Directed by: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

With movies, sometimes the most important movements are the hardest to notice, because they seem only natural, just part of the cultural air. It took outsiders – French film critics – to take note of film noir and to recognize Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock as great directors. If something big is going on right now that we’re taking for granted, it’s comedy. We get a good one every few weeks, and the latest, “22 Jump Street,” is better than most.

“22 Jump Street” is exactly what comedy is today. It’s coarse, free-flowing and playful. People talk the way they talk in real life. It has no sentiment of any kind and no phony uplift. No one becomes a better person for having watched it. It’s made with an awareness of the past, so you get subtle riffs on genre cliches from earlier comedies. And it’s really funny, not “heh-heh” funny but laugh-out-loud funny, virtually scene by scene.

It’s funnier than an earlier generation’s buddy-cop comedies, such as “48 Hrs.,” though it’s not funnier than the memory of those movies – just as Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” can’t compete with the memory of “Blazing Saddles,” though it’s funnier. Eventually, these new movies will become respectable, right around the time audiences stop laughing at them.

The sequel to “21 Jump Street,” which was based on the old TV series starring Johnny Depp, once again finds Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as a pair of undercover drug agents. The last time they infiltrated a high school. This time they go undercover at a college. Otherwise, the case is “exactly the same” as last time, a point that the movie emphasizes over and over as an in-joke about the nature of sequels.

The first clue that the new installment is on solid ground comes in the opening minutes, in which Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are chasing a group of smugglers. The stars are in perfect comic sympathy, and a scene of the two of them riding on top of an 18-wheel truck resolves in a memorable sight gag – imaginatively conceived and beautifully executed.

There are few throwaway scenes, there just to move the plot machinery from point A to point B. Instead, almost every encounter has its own comic twist, as though the script were conceived as a series of skits.

Throughout “22 Jump Street,” their fellow students keep recognizing the undercover cops as 30-year-olds, reminding us of the absurdity of the entire premise. Along that line, there’s a particularly good running gag in which Schmidt (Hill) keeps getting castigated by his girlfriend’s nasty roommate (Jillian Bell) for looking like Methuselah.

Ice Cube is back as the guys’ perpetually exasperated superior officer, but as with everything in “22 Jump Street,” the filmmakers take a cop-movie cliche and blow it up so that Cube’s exasperation is of epic dimension. He has a terrific set piece in which he flies into a rage at a buffet.

The movie’s one flaw, a common one, is that about 25 minutes before the finish, it slows down. It loses velocity and starts going through the motions for a patch of 10 or 12 minutes, but then it revives. The end credits sequence, in which they preview future sequels (such as “30 Jump Street”), is worth a look.

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