Instead of attracting a spray from vitriolic reviewers fulminating about the grim realities of the McMovie business, where punters pay around 20 bucks a session (cheaper on Tuesdays) to get bludgeoned with thinly veiled promotion of merchandise and tie-ins, their bells and whistles blockbuster became one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year.
It’s not that audiences didn’t realise they were watching a colourful advertisement. They found it so much fun, and so thoughtfully put together, there was no reason to point out the obvious: that conceptually The LEGO Movie isn’t much different from a Spray n’ Wipe commercial.
Two of the voice actors in The LEGO Movie, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, are the stars of 22 Jump Street, another film with a vested interest in extending big name brands. This time the audience are brought in on the joke. The follow-up to 21 Jump Street, a 2012 buddy cop comedy adapted from a ’80s TV crime drama, the film regularly denigrates the very idea of sequels, apparently convinced its own existence is a mistake. At least, that’s the joke – and one Lord and Miller extrapolate considerable mileage riffing on.
“It’s always worse the second time around. You settle into worn out roles,” says one police chief to Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) when they sit down to hear details about their new adventure, which turns out to be a lot like the old one: “same identity, same assignment.”
Instead of extending the franchise to new and zany places, the gag is that the same setting and plotline (more or less) will be rehashed, inferring audiences will fork over their hard-earned expecting little more. Ironically, in that deliberate choice of similarity 22 Jump Street finds a marketable point of difference. When operating within such a strict format the challenge to innovate becomes more difficult and the writers have to work harder to make a familiar package satisfying.
The first movie follows the two bumbling and bickering cops as they infiltrate a drug ring in a high school, the second a drug ring in university. That requires Schmidt and Jenko once again to mingle with a younger crowd. Jenko gravitates towards jocks, football and beer. Schmidt hangs out with the wine quaffing art crowd, and after a recital at a poetry slam event — a very funny scene that plays to Hill’s strengths as a dorky but determined showboater — he finds a college girlfriend (Amber Stevens).
The infiltrate-and-investigate premise necessities that the two bumbling detectives enact the catch 22 at the heart of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly: in order to pose as drug takers they must become users. As in its predecessor, this leads to 22 Jump Street’s most overtly visual gag, in which the audience are treated to the characters’ hallucinations. Because both men are so obviously partial to the hedonistic follies of youth– booze, girls, intemperate feuds, etcetera — their role as cops never really rings true, but no matter.
Three primary strands of humour return intermittently in a plotline dotted with frat boy shenanigans, undercover cop high jinks and pseudo coming of age: sequel lethargy, homosexual innuendo and “we’re too old for this” fish out of water shtick. The glue that binds it is the effortless chemistry between Tatum and Hill. They make a memorable odd couple, the ebb and flow of their jiving, cussing and kid-like neediness are smoother and more endearing second time around.
While Lord and Miller’s self-conscious sequel dissing gives 22 Jump Street an edge, they don’t completely follow through with the goods. Towards the end of the film the characters are told money is running out — “this shit’s expensive,” sqwarks Ice Cube as their hard arse boss, imploring them to keep costs under control.
This presents a golden opportunity (hinted at during an aerial shot in which we see cars race in and out of a building but don’t see the mess they caused inside) for a low-fi, character-oriented ending that could have cleverly merged form and content. This doesn’t happen, but the extent of the gag about Hollywood’s propensity to flog franchises and pump out sequels is saved for the very end, during a closing credits reel that’s too good to spoil.