Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Hysterical Subversion -- Reflections on "21 Jump Street" (2012)

Sooo, that's how they get the doves to come out of the car?

Our appreciation of a movie is often based on its use of conventions, the specific practices that we often associate with certain genres. I like to call them expectations. When the use of conventions in a movie feels too obvious, too similar to other films, the movie is typically seen as a piece of crap, unworthy of mention, or simply forgettable. But, when a movie takes our expectations and twists them, manipulates them, or even defies them, the movie becomes engrossing and memorable.

Few genres are as defined by convention as the “buddy cop/odd couple” genre. The recipe is simple: take two characters who are polar opposites and throw them into a situation where they must rely on each other. Roger Ebert refers to them as “Wunza” movies, as in “One’s a rebel, one’s a by-the-book vet.” We expect car chases, gun fights, moments of male bonding, and moments of bickering in which the cops seem more like a married couple than co-workers. It’s been a very effective genre over the years, with movies like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Men in Black, Rush Hour, Se7en, and Training Day all box office successes.

Early in 21 Jump Street, I realized I was in for a different take on the genre. Our bumbling heroes, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) receive a new assignment from their Captain (Nick Offerman). Due to their on-the-job incompetence – Jenko’s inability to remember the Miranda rights during an arrest – the duo is assigned to an undercover unit. As the Captain explains their assignment, he adds, “We’re reviving a cancelled undercover program from the 80s” and proceeds to explain how the powers that be prefer to recycle old projects due to a lack of originality. The metafictional vibe set by the scene immediately announced that everyone involved with this project was not only quite aware how absurd it was to make a movie based on a generic 80s TV show (notable only because it was the launch pad for Johnny Depp’s career), but excited by the opportunity to subvert everyone’s expectations.

Their excitement is contagious, making 21 Jump Street an outrageous, edgy comedy.

We first encounter Schmidt and Jenko in a flashback to 2005, when they were in high school together. Both play definite stereotypes – Schmidt the geek and Jenko the dumb jock – yet both are spurned by the institution of high school. While the flashback itself was a fairly typical starting point for a movie like this, the way its events are played out as the story progresses is pretty effective, especially for Tatum’s character. After this, we flashforward to the present and discover how these two completely different guys become partners and friends as they train to be cops. Then the plot brings them to 21 Jump Street and Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson.

That’s where the clich├ęs end. From there we enter unchartered territory as the film brings Schmidt and Jenko to Sagan High to bust a drug ring, where they discover that the social order of high schools has changed dramatically over the course of the last seven years. Suddenly, the popular kids aren’t stupid, but intelligent, college bound, and involved. The film gets tons of mileage out of this as Schimdt and Jenko navigate the new landscape. And in the movie’s best twist, Jenko’s stupidity leads to him getting his undercover identity mixed up with Schmidt’s, suddenly putting him in the honors classes, while Schmidt gets to slum it in the drama and gym classes. This twist allows Tatum to shine, showing that he has a gift for comedy that he has not been allowed to display in his previous beefcake roles.

Time and again, 21 Jump Street defies expectations. It injects the buddy-cop formula with new life by taking old conventions and screwing with them mercilessly, from traditional character arcs to chase scenes to shoot outs. Even the expected cameos from the actors in the original series (Holly Robinson, Peter DeLuise, and Johnny Depp himself) are inserted in unique and unexpected ways. Anyone looking for a crash course on how to subvert and exceed audience expectations needs to take a long look – after coming down from the hysterical laughter – at 21 Jump Street.

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