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Film review: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum continue to spin comic gold in '22 Jump Street'

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Things are always worse the second time around, the deputy police chief warns the buddy-cop team of Jenko and Schmidt in "22 Jump Street."

He's talking about their next assignment, but of course, it's an inside joke — with the audience. "22 Jump Street," starring the inspired comic duo of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, is a sequel, and movie sequels are indeed often worse (especially when, as the chief also points out, the budget's bigger the second time around.)

Self-referential jokes aside, things aren't worse the second time around for Hill, Tatum and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It's fine to make fun of sequels — and this movie does, all the way to a fabulous ending-credits bit that steals the film — when you know you've made a pretty darned good one yourself.

Not that this film is perfect — some jokes go too far, or too long, or both, and one running gag involving prison sex is gratuitous, ill-advised, unfunny, and, well, we'd say more but three adjectives are enough. Many more jokes, though — spoken and visual — succeed beautifully.

And the cast? It's a pretty heavenly group, anchored of course by Hill and Tatum, who have a Laurel-and-Hardy-like implausible chemistry that keeps you laughing pretty much no matter what they're doing.

If you never saw "21 Jump Street," no worries — the filmmakers bring you up to speed fast. The last film saw Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) go undercover to high school. This time, it's college they're ordered to infiltrate, to thwart a nasty drug ring. ("I'm the first person in my family to pretend to go to college," Jenko says proudly.)

It's part of the joke that the pasty, pudgy Schmidt, especially, hardly looks college-age and doesn't really try, despite his need to blend in. "Tell us about the war — ANY of them," one student, Mercedes (a terrific Jillian Bell), says to him mockingly. Even less plausible than Schmidt being an undergrad: that the exquisitely gorgeous art major Maya, Mercedes' roommate (Amber Stevens), would somehow hook up with him, when he's nothing but bumbling in her presence. But, as they say in college, whatever. Maybe she's blown away by his (terrible, and very funny) attempt at slam poetry.

The college setting provides its usual comic fodder, starting with a cute montage involving things you need to live in college dorms: Popup laundry hampers, bean-bag chairs, lava lamps, shower poofs, a bacon machine (don't ask.) There's also the obligatory frat house, which sets up the amusing BFF relationship between studly Jenko and studly frat leader Zook (Wyatt Russell, who brings to mind a younger Owen Wilson.)

Jenko bonds easily with Zook, who lures him onto the football team, where Jenko succeeds dramatically. The two bond so well that Jenko and Schmidt have a sort of buddy-cop breakup. "Maybe we should, you know, investigate other people," Jenko tells a wounded Schmidt.

But the guys need to crack the drug case — money's running out, according to their supervising captain, Dickson, played by Ice Cube in a humorous performance that seethes all kinds of rage — professional, personal, you name it. And so, tracking down the villains, we eventually arrive in — of course, Mexico, for spring break! There, watch for a weirdly hilarious fistfight between Schmidt and one of the characters we've mentioned earlier.

It's one of the film's best scenes, but no scene in the film proper rivals the closing credits — a sendup of sequels which includes its own notable celebrity cameo and is alone worth the price of admission.

Will there be a "23 Jump Street"? If things are always worse the second time, wouldn't they be even worse the third? With Lord and Miller's track record, that's hardly a given.

"22 Jump Street," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence." Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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