First things first: 22 Jump Street is everything fans of the first movie want it to be. It’s the rare comedy sequel that, if not altogether superior to its predecessor, is at least hilarious and imaginative enough to justify its own existence and then some. The funniest movie of the year so far, though? Not quite—Neighbors still holds that title, 22 Jump Street’s sole drawback being its frequent air of familiarity. On purpose, co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, along with the three credited screenwriters (Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman), basically rehash 2012’s surprise triumph 21 Jump Street for the sequel’s first half, resulting in what’s possibly the most meta comedy ever made. Most of it is very clever (a nifty play on the “meet-cute” scenario involving meat and a Q-Tip), but some of the self-aware humor verges on overkill and obviousness (a drug-dealer suspect's arm tattoo is of a red herring fish).
22 Jump Street’s minor flaws are easily forgivable, though, because of its two wonderfully compatible stars, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, back as undercover cops Schmidt and Jenko, respectively. On paper, they seem mismatched; Phil Lord, in a recent interview with Variety, nailed it by saying their pairing is "like watching a mountain and a baby become friends." Stemming from their Jump Street collaborations, the now-real-life best friends have forged a pitch-perfect on-screen chemistry, which 22 Jump Street wisely milks by turning its narrative focus on their bromantic relationship. At one point, when it’s time for Schmidt and Jenko to split up the case, which finds them going incognito on a college campus to track down a drug called "WHY-PHY" (Work Hard? Yes. Play Hard? Yes.), they agree to have an “open investigation,” in order to “investigate” other people. By playing the exchange totally straight, Hill and Tatum earn both laughs and affection.
Here’s the thing, though—skim through any of this week's 22 Jump Street reviews and you’ll no doubt read sentiments and opinions that echo what you’ve just read. Since they’re the headliners, Hill and Tatum are rightfully receiving the bulk of the film’s praise. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. They’re the funniest two-male movie duo since Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber (1994), and their ability to anchor a genuinely uproarious comedy sequel needs to be commended, especially in light of that new, tragic Dumb and Dumber To trailer, which is decidedly less funny than if someone had filmed Carrey’s Joel Barish and Daniels’ Will McAvoy discussing geopolitics.
Within all of the Hill/Tatum adoration, though, 22 Jump Street’s Most Valuable Player has mostly been overlooked, and even the reviews and write-ups that have acknowledged him only do so in a passing sentence or random aside. Some who’ve seen the film could argue that Workaholics cast member turned big-screen scene-stealer Jillian Bell is 22 Jump Street’s best secret weapon, and they’d have a valid stance. Playing Mercedes, the droll roommate of Schmidt’s love interest, Maya (Amber Stevens), Bell weaves gold out of an endless barrage of Schmidt’s-an-old-man jokes and powers one of the film’s funniest bits, a violent fight with Hill that seesaws from anger to one-sided romantic attraction.
But, no, Bell isn’t 22 Jump Street’s most crucial asset—it’s Ice Cube.
Once again playing Schmidt and Jenko’s perpetually heated boss, Captain Dickson, Cube continues to body the “angry authority figure” archetype. When 22 Jump Street is going through its early meta motions, he’s essentially reheating the biting disses and steady humorlessness seen in 21 Jump Street, yet it’s just as delightfully vitriolic as before. But then Dickson disappears as Schmidt and Jenko do their collegiate things, and the film misses his edge. It seems likely that, just like in 21 Jump Street, Ice Cube will overachieve in an underused role.
But then—be warned, Spoilers Ahead—Cube’s Dickson reenters 22 Jump Street in a brilliant twist that plays like gangbusters and brings freshness to the film as a whole. Technically, this won’t be a spoiler if you’re the type who reads films’ IMDB and Wikipedia pages and pays attention to character names, since “Dickson” appears at the end of two cast members’ fictional identities: Maya, the beautiful art student Schmidt’s been romancing, is actually Capt. Dickson’s daughter. The revelation is made all the more tragic and ingenious by the fact that, earlier into the film, Dickson broke from his confrontational disposition to proudly slap Schmidt’s hand for having sex with a girl, who, unbeknownst to daddy, is his daughter.
The Maya Dickson reveal is 22 Jump Street’s turning point, when the sequel stops playfully mimicking its originator and becomes its own parade of non-stop laughs. For a few terrific moments, Cube, Hill, and Stevens connect for the Ashton-Kutcher-free Guess Who's Coming to Dinner remake the world deserves. The plot shift also gives Ice Cube more to do, and with that increased screen-time Cube gets to pull off the funniest thing he’s ever done in a movie: ferociously trashing an upscale all-you-can-eat buffet while viciously sonning the fancy-pants servers. It’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted-era O’Shea Jackson momentarily brought back to life, and it’s magical. Furthermore, Cube’s co-stars equally benefit from Captain Dickson’s enlarged role. While Hill gets to dial his excellently performed neuroses up to 11 in Cube’s fatherly presence, Tatum gets to bring the house down with the most amusing delayed reaction, re: Schmidt and Maya, this side of a Dwyane Wade flop.
Much has already been made about 22 Jump Street’s end credits sequence, and for good reason—it’s every bit as glorious as it is LOL-worthy and ballsy (and too damn good to openly discuss here). But let’s just say that it’s the filmmakers and cast’s way of answering any questions about whether or not there will be any more Jump Street movies.
By upping Ice Cube’s participation, though, 22 Jump Street suggests that more sequels led by Captain Dickson and sans Schmidt and Jenko might not be so bad. He could definitely use a stronger franchise than what the disappointing, but nevertheless financially successful, Ride Along will produce, and it doesn’t seem like there will ever be another great Friday movie. Not to mention, awarding Ice Cube with the Jump Street brand would be a much cooler prize than the MVP trophy he deserves for his 22 Jump Street performance.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who listened to N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton more than he probably should have as a suburban New Jersey pre-teen. He tweets here.