It’s probably impossible for an English speaker between the ages of 4 and 87 to watch “22 Jump Street” without laughing at some damn thing or other. The sequel to the 2012 quasi-adaptation of late-’80s TV cop drama “21 Jump Street” sprays jokes across a wider range of tastes than maybe any comedy you’ve seen. For every pratfall, or bodily fluid reference, or octopus attack, or gratuitous explosion, or tripping-balls druggie sequence, you might notice sly references to old BBC farces and gangsta rap, deadpan double entendre, and some deft physical comedy by stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. This movie begs to be loved, so you might as well indulge it.
The plot is a self-conscious reprise of “21,” so much so that the movie falls into one of its few overstretched jokes, a fourth-wall-cracking bit of banter about how similar the sequel seems. But here we go: Hill and Tatum, back as undercover cops who would rather rage at a kegger than use a notebook or probe a database, have to pose as undergrads to infiltrate a possible drug ring at a university. Tatum falls in with a Greek-lettered football crowd that embraces him with a frat-tastic fervor, while Hill stumbles through the nerd scene with an arts-major lady friend (Amber Stevens). The flagrantly evil Peter Stormare plays a villain. Ice Cube, whose seminal hip-hop group N.W.A. sang “Fuck Tha Police,” again plays a boss cop.
Between these “Jump Street” installments, the directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller pulled off an equally madcap gem with “The Lego Movie,” which, though almost fully animated, was scarcely more cartoonish than “22.” At times it hews to strait-laced police comedy formula before swerving gleefully into psychedelia, hall-of-mirrors self-referentialism, and whatever else might stick when thrown against the wall. The sturdiest of these legs is the chemistry between the two leads, whose friendship is tested in ways that you’d predict by merely looking at them. Hill and Tatum apparently are buds in real life, and on-screen they clearly get a kick out of working with one another. We spend money to see movies for many reasons, not least among them to watch interesting people who seem like friends say hilarious things to one another, and to have adventures. ‘Cause maybe that could be us!
Hill’s a decorated talent, with a couple of Oscar nominations on his CV, and he gets some of the better lines in “22.” But Tatum owns more of the laughs. His GQ cover notwithstanding, we still aren’t giving Tatum his due as a performer. His physique is straight out of a risque Renaissance painting, so it’s easy to assume he’s only on the big screen because he looks the part. But he is also really effing funny. I’ve seen hundreds of movies in theaters, and I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed louder in public than watching Tatum in “22” after he realizes (no spoilers) that his partner and his boss have an unlikely connection.
Tatum was solid in his semiautobiographical “Magic Mike” alongside a spectacular Matthew McConaughey, who, despite the low-brow sleaze of his role, absolutely went for the gold. McConaughey didn’t get an Oscar for “Magic Mike” but he did a year later, for “Dallas Buyers Club.” You gotta imagine Tatum noticed the progression. Lay out for the part, every part, no matter the role, and good things happen. Acting chops are one thing, and it’s not clear that Tatum’s ever going to join that upper tier of talents. However, consistently being one of the best things about hilarious films is not at all a bad niche.