One of the main issues I had with 21 Jump Street, Phil Lord and Chris Miller's (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie) first revival of the '80s cops-pretend-to-be-teenagers series, was that it used a veneer of post-modernism to justify its existence without really doing anything else with it. By pointing out the presumed creative bankruptcy that leads studios to green light remakes of ephemera from decades ago, Lord and Miller, working from a script by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall, were able to position 21 Jump Street as a critique of revivals of old properties, then use that as a springboard to make a really entertaining buddy cop comedy that wasn't really critiquing anything because it was too busy delivering a lot of great jokes. It started with an interesting idea, then tossed it aside once it had served its purpose. It was able to get away with that purely by being incredibly funny, but it still felt like a missed opportunity.
When the time came to make a sequel, it would have been very easy to do the same thing: Start with a few jokes about how stupid sequels can be, how they're almost always not as good as the first time around, then get on with the business of telling jokes around a fairly loosely-plotted story of cops and drugs. And that initially seems to be the approach that 22 Jump Street plans to take, since its first twenty minutes deliberately and pointedly mirror those of its predecessor. The film opens with Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) messing up an assignment, after which Nick Offerman shows up to make a lot of very pointed jokes about their situation which double as references to the film itself, before sending them to a new, much more expensive looking office where Ice Cube tells them they have to pretend to be students in order to infiltrate a drug ring again.
The details in these scenes have been tweaked, but the outline is broadly the same because the purpose of a sequel is to be the same as the first film, only more so. Their initial screw-up is on a bigger scale, to reflect their improved standing in the police department and the film's bigger budget; Offerman's jokes are about how the Jump Street program, much like the first Jump Street film, has been a bigger success than people anticipated and has received a much bigger budget as a result; their offices are now based in a Vietnamese church (complete with swag-addled Vietnamese Jesus statue) which is, rather fortuitously, located directly opposite the Korean church that served as their headquarters the first time around; their assignment this time involves pretending to be college students, rather than high school students, in order to investigate another drug-related death. There's even a more elaborate and colourful animated drug trip sequence that comes at more or less the same point as the one in the first film, which reflects Lord and Miller's growing confidence as visual stylists (which is also demonstrated in the sheer number of blink or you'll miss them sight gags) and an acknowledgement that people really liked the drug sequence in 21 Jump Street.
These are the kind of cosmetic differences you'd expect to see in a mercenary sequel, but instead of sticking to the formula of the first film by dropping all the sequel jokes once the story takes over, 22 Jump Street keeps piling on the meta-textual jokes until it has been so thoroughly turned inside out that it resembles its own X-ray. Every time that Jenko and Schmidt try to do something different from what they did the first time, they are lambasted by their superiors, who tell them in no uncertain terms that this case is exactly the same as the one in 21 Jump Street and that they should just do what they did before. It's a funny gag that gets better with repetition, but it doubles up as a slyly incisive criticism of the way that both studios and audiences think they just want to see the same thing they enjoyed last time rather than something new.
You could even read Ice Cube's increased presence as a reflection on how popular minor characters are given more screen time when the sequel rolls around. (The fact that he gives a relentlessly funny, career best performance justifies that decision: Here's hoping for a spin-off that consists solely of him angrily destroying buffets.) Whether or not that interpretation is intentional is immaterial. What matters is that 22 Jump Street is the sort of film that invites that level of analysis, even as it makes plenty of silly gags that remind you that it's still a comedy, and a really funny one at that. It's probably the most entertaining yet self-critical mainstream film since Scream.
That layering of meaning within well-crafted jokes has been central to the work of Lord and Miller going back to their brilliant but short-lived series Clone High. They have a keen knack for structure that allows them to tell complete, satisfying stories, but that awareness allows them to subvert and comment on the stories they tell. They also possess a seemingly unique ability to be both detached and earnest. The film around Tatum and Hill is very self-aware and concerned with deconstructing its genre, but their performances are not knowing in the slightest. They're very committed to depicting a close and heartfelt friendship, going so far as to make the usual "a partnership is like a marriage" subtext of most cop movies text, complete with an emotional break-up and couples' counseling session as Schmidt feels threatened by Jenko's new friendship with a football player (Wyatt Russell) and repeated visual cues representing the idea that Jenko is the hanger-on in the partnership.
In a film that has a lot of fun poking holes at generic conventions, even going so far as to load the credits with dozens of killer jokes about hacky sequels, the single funniest moment might be Tatum's unexpectedly volatile reaction to learning something about Jenko's new girlfriend (Amber Stevens). It has almost nothing to do with the plot or the thesis driving the action, it's just a really funny moment that comes from the characters and relationships that have been built over the course of two films. It's hard to be sincere, distant, crass and intellectual all at the same time, but 22 Jump Street manages it. It eats its own tail, for sure, but it does it so hard that it somehow comes out ahead.