Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are two of the most exciting directors working in Hollywood. Their hyperkinetic style stems from their background in animation. Both cult television show Clone High and 2009's day-glo visual feast Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs show exactly what these directors' imaginations can do when the restrictions of reality do not apply. Long dead celebrities as teenagers and edible precipitation would be impossible to recreate without outrageous expense, but with animation as long as it can be drawn or digitally rendered, no problem. But what happens when animation filmmakers attempt live-action? Former animator for The Simpsons and director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Brad Bird's first live-action endeavour was the non-stop action-packed Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol with Tom “don't-tell-me-it's-impossible” Cruise defying death in the lead role. Animation directors seems to have shorter attention spans, leading to adrenalised quick cuts and flights of seeming impossibility. All of this is present in Lord and Miller's first non-animated feature: 21 Jump Street. Witness the H.F.S. sequence complete with melting ice cream head and one can instantly see the directors' instilled animated mentality.
Throughout 21 Jump Street Lord and Miller use various thematic opposites to give texture to their story. The most common thematic opposition used in film is good versus evil, but in 21 Jump Street there are way more examples of this. Jenko (Channing Tatum) is set up as a prototypical Jock – self confident, good at sports and unintelligent (“Fake-ass Handsome McGee”), and his persona is teamed up with Schmidt (Jonah Hill), a clichéd nerd – smart, uncoordinated with low self-esteem. These differences in personality create comedy due to their contrasting nature. An example where this is shown in the fight at the house party: Whereas Jenko stylishly and efficiently dispatches with multiple antagonistic party-goers, Schmidt is left flailing ineffectively against one guy. Jenko loved high school because he was popular, whereas Schmidt hated it because he was not, and because of these reasons Jenko is psyched to return to high school while Schmidt is not. The eventual shift in hierarchy and how Jenko and Schmidt come to terms with this shift is what most of 21 Jump Street's character beats revolve around; Jenko's sombre “I don't get this school” most concisely shows this fluctuation of status.
A fair bit of what makes 21 Jump Street so funny is its knowledge and referential nature in which it deals with stereotypes and genre tropes, while also being aware of the general absurdity of the scenario. Being that a couple of characters in their late-twenties pretending to be high school students, there are numerous references to how old and out of place they look. In reality their cover would be blown within minutes but the characters in the film, while questioning it, go along with the situation because the plot depends on it. There are moments, especially later in the film, where action movie conventions are subverted. When someone familiar with action films sees a truck of propane canisters overturned or a bullet-riddled petrol tanker, they expect an explosion. 21 Jump Street, aware of the audience's expectation, withholds the explosion for comedic purposes, instead later implying that caged chickens are dangerously volatile. Traditionally car-chases are high-speed affairs that involve sleek swift expensive conveyances, 21 Jump Street's two main car chases feature excessive traffic gridlock, a driver's ed car, a pink Volkswagen bug and three limos – humorously separate from James Bond's various Aston Martin getaways. Action films also rarely show the real life repercussions of the derring-do such as the immediate adrenaline vomit after killing someone or the charred-body aftermath of a CGI explosion - 21 Jump Street remedies that. Miller and Lord do not spoof these tropes, as much as they create a pastiche with these ideas in a similar way to Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy.
As well as subverting genre, 21 Jump Street also is very aware of the actors that are present within their film and their presence within popular culture as a whole. There are at least three moments that are also featured in Hill's former film Superbad (parking in a handicap space at school, getting alcohol for a party, and an impromptu shooting range). Tatum is constantly seen as a brainless hunk, which is generally what his roles up to this point had been, but here he plays up this image for comedy. The most fun subverted stereotype is Ice Cube's “Angry Black Captain”. As he says “Embrace your stereotypes”, but previous to his acting career he was best know for his work in gangsta-rap group N.W.A. The former gangbanger playing an authority figure is deliciously subversive, but having the first couple of bars of 'Straight Outta Compton' complete with “crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube” lyric brings a further sense of fourth-wall breaking. Additionally the third act cameo reveal is based around audience's prior knowledge of 21 Jump Street in its original TV show form. But that is what Lord and Miller do – they are know the rules and twist them with anarchic glee. This is what makes them so exciting.
See also: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), The Lego Movie (2014)
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