Screening Log #63: 21 Jump Street (2012)

Written by Michael Bacall & Jonah Hill, based on the television show created by Patrick Hasburgh & Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, and Dave Franco




And we’re back after a (not-so) brief hiatus from film watch – and subsequent blogging – in the light of some other pressing academic work. Now that that has been (mostly) taken care of, onward and upward in the cinema once more.

There is a curious myopia that resides in the perspective of a large number of adolescents. The intense subjective focus in high school, with many actions predicated on how they will be interpreted by a larger peer body, and its resultant divisive social hierarchy is a social apparatus that seems constructed as the world’s most immanent mirage. High school society is both far more and much less dire than it may seem to those submerged in it, its boundaries and roles superseded quickly by the world that lies beyond graduation, its implications in the future perhaps disappointingly fleeting or subtly permanent depending on individual experience.

This social ecosystem is itself not a static closed system, but rather an artifice that evolves over time and adapts to external pressures. It is this process of evolution and change that underpins Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Jonah Hill penned update of the television series 21 Jump Street. Borrowing the show’s basic premise – that two police officers go undercover to unearth a drug ring in a high school – this film constructs a high school scenario in the bygone era of 2005 wherein Schmidt, Jonah Hill, is a nerdy Eminem lookalike and Jenko, Channing Tatum, is the chiseled, long-haired, would-be prom king derailed by his academic negligence. The pair become odd couple best friends via Police Academy training montage and are paired up together as brains’n’brawn, eternally complementary, bike cops.

Following a bungled drug bust, the pair are bumped down to the 21 Jump Street unit and tasked by Captain Dickinson, an unrestrainedly profane Ice Cube, and Korean Jesus to infiltrate a high school posing as brothers, to bring down the supplier of a new drug responsible for the death of a student. It is this return to high school, only seven years removed from the protagonists, and the changes that its social ecosystem has undergone in the interim that generates the comedic tension of the film. Gone are the familiar signposts once embraced by the popular Jenko, slackerism and apathy have been replaced by activism, conscientiousness, and acceptance. The reversal inverts the previous social dynamic, placing Schmidt as the more socially acceptable and popular of the two and demoting Jenko to pitiable meat head outcast. This inversion is complicated one again after the two officers have their undercover files reversed, furthering the potential for fish-out-of-water humour.

The film moves through typical plot beats as its logical follow-through of Schmidt and Jenko’s new roles necessarily strains their relationship. The typical danger of an under cover agent getting too close to their target arises, also. All of this works towards the conventionally moralizing demonstration of role reversal leading to better mutual understanding – walk a mile in another man’s Chuck Taylors and all that. The film’s conventional structure and ethos is ornamented and enlivened by its clever jokes and several instances of indirect fourth wall breaking by numerous characters who obliquely reference the absurdity of Hollywood’s recycling old material for films and archetypical characters are given leeway to reference their own stereotypical nature. This extends even to a Johnny Depp cameo where another character states that he must be a really good actor. Through these gestures the film’s penchant to subvert the typical transcends the screen and includes the viewer in a gesture that allows the film a surprisingly endearing measure of playfulness.

The differences between the versions of high school experienced by Schmidt and Jenko in 21 Jump Street are ultimately illusory; the first is affixed in 2005 only by Schmidt’s Slim Shady get-up and the Eminem song that plays over the opening and the latter is an abstracted and idealized version of a high school system in which such clear social delineations are more difficult, but ultimately must exist. The merit of the film comes not from its broadly familiar and recycled concept, but rather from the film’s honesty about its context and the energy of its performers. Perhaps this serves as a not-unwelcome blue print for success as Hollywood moves onward with its vast number of adolescent refreshes, reboots, reduxes, and remakes of older intellectual properties, a demonstration that originality in content can be compensated by openness and a clever wit; that, perhaps, something was learned from the first go around after all.


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