Saturday, March 17, 2012

21 Jump Street: Covalent Bonding

In this poster, please note that, in spite of their tuxedos, they were street shoes. The black and white coloring is important because, just prior to the prom, they have gotten fired from the force for getting expelled and, as we know, the feet symbolize the will, so shoes can indicate important traits about the character's will and direction. Please note Jenko's (Channning Tatum): the white soles and black on top means he is walking in faith (symbolized by the white) that he's doing the right thing for the police force in tracking down the drug dealer and the top black part means he is spiritually dead to any other gain apart from that; contrasted with Schmidt's shoes (Jonah Hill) there are white laces on top, symbolic of the "tying up of loose ends" Schmidt would like to take advantage of in this chance to return to high school which was a curse to him. This three layers to his shoes (white soles, black tops and white laces) mirrors the "threesome" nudity scene in the party at Schmidt's house (Schmidt opens the door to his parents' bedroom and there is a naked guy in-between two girls).  Schmidt, wanting to do good work for the force (one of the girls) is also trying to accomplish what he didn't accomplish in high school (the girl behind him) and when Molly asks, "What was that girl behind him doing?" it refers to her not understanding why Schmidt is really there.
Phil Lord's and Chris Miller's 21 Jump Street  is quite funny, but funny isn't enough: stars Jonah Hill (Schmidt) and Channing Tatum (Jenko) also produced the film and Mr. Hill helped to pen the screenplay, which contains self-awareness about the buddy cop genre that expands its purpose while making timely observations about the new environmental movements gripping this generation's teenagers.
The two future cops briefly in their own high school years, graduating class 2005.  In high school, Jenko (Tatum) is the great athlete but flunks out so he can't be prom king; Schmidt (Hill) is a nerd so even though he can go to prom, he can't get a date. This is just one of the great "covalent structures" the film uses to draw out the stereotypes in high school and cop films. What's important about this particular scene, though, is the hair each of them wears.  Because Jenko thinks extremely well of himself, he has lots of hair (hair symbolizes our thoughts). Schmidt, being a nerd, intentionally tries to "blend in," which his poorly chosen bleached hair accentuates, that wanting to be a "part of the in-crowd," he willingly abandons his own identity and that over-exertion to blend in makes him stick out
When Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) shows Schmidt and Jenko a Youtube video of one student who recorded himself taking the drug, that student (a drama student who was scheduled to play Peter Pan in the upcoming school play) wears a green "NOEL" T-shit with a Christmas tree on it. Because the drug resembles a communion wafer, the set-up suggests an alternative religious experience being sought out by high school students today, instead of the more traditional path (which, who are we kidding? Hasn't this always been the case, even in Christian schools?). The kid they watch reacting to the drug dies a few days later from an overdose, but as the principal confesses, no one does anything about it.
"Embrace your stereotype!" Ice Cube tells the undercover cops, so they can blend in with the students better. Schmidt is so busy being scared about going back, he tries to blend in too hard. First, note the blue shirt Schmidt wears: we know he's depressed and it shows in the blue (melancholy) he wears; Jenko wearing red is for his appetites because he excelled  (in many ways) in high school so (while he's not sweating going back to school the way Schmidt is) Jenko is "hungry" (red means the appetites) to stand out on the force for getting this assignment done right, regardless of how he did on assignments in school. 
Covalent bonding is a chemistry term,  used as the film's primary metaphor for the lessons both Schmidt and Jenko need to learn to make it through the film alive and achieve the necessary conversions within themselves to be classified heroes at the end. While I wouldn't classify 21 Jump Street as a conservative film, it does take pains to illustrate and undermine certain liberal agendas, such as extreme environmentalism.
Schmidt under cover with Molly from his acting class and Eric's casual girlfriend. Molly is an important character because her father abandoned her when she was little and the emotional damage that caused her reveals itself in her casual sexuality and letting herself be abused. Just as Molly mis-uses her phone for texting, rather than calling people (which is what they were invented for) Molly also mis-uses her body for casual sex than than intimate (marital) sex.  Because her father leaving her when she was young holds her hostage to the point it threatens her ability to live, Coach Walters holds her hostage and threatens her life. Just as Molly's dad didn't live up to the requirements and responsibilities of his manhood in taking care of his daughter, so Coach Walters doesn't live up to his responsibilities in taking care of Molly (using her for his protection instead of using his masculinity to protect her) and loses his manhood (which is nicely done by the film makers: losing your child is the same as losing your penis, which permitted you to create the child, and throwing away that child, not caring and providing for them, means a man is throwing away his spiritual, emotional and psychological manhood the same way Coach Walters' physical manhood, his penis, is shot off).  Molly's casual sexuality is mirrored by the the girl in the limo: girls see their bodies as vehicles for pleasure rather than the house of the soul. Schmidt and Jenko are in a car chase and a girl is in the back of the limo wanting to perform oral sex on Jenko like a prostitute (she has never met Jenko, and there are prostitutes in the film, and they behave more lady-like than the ladies).  The girl in the limo (a projection of Molly herself) thinks by sexual experimentation (like the drug use in the film) she will really be living and having a good time, but also because girls like Molly who have been damaged emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, behave abnormally by trying to find healing for their low self-esteem through sex, so normal girls who are not damaged see the Mollys of the world and think her abnormal behavior is normal behavior, so the damaged girls lead healthy girls into becoming "sick" like them (we see this exact same situation in the sexually abused Sarah Murphy [Elizabeth Olson] of Silent House).  But this doesn't happen with just girls, Jenko--who is only known because of his good looks and great body--is just as dehumanized as the girl in the limo. Jenko has been used as a vehicle for pleasure by women (the chemistry teacher telling him she wants to "check out his chest" puts his body over his mind) so Jenko in turn dehumanizes others. When Schmidt and Jenko are on the highway stalled in traffic, Jenko pulls a woman out of a pink VW Bug and tells her how hot she is even as he's stealing her car, because to him, she is nothing but a vehicle for him to catch the druggies, because Jenko has been nothing during his life but a vehicle for women's pleasure; it is a vicious cycle of sexual, self-abuse for all involved.
The window of time between Schmidt's and Jenko's graduation, and their re-entering high school under the cover of finding the drug dealers, is only a seven year period; what's the biggest part of the last seven years taken up by? The current political administration.  So when Jenko and Schmidt walk into school, they try to identify everyone by their clothes, hairstyles and cars, and make a huge mistake.
It is interesting because we don't see them graduating high school, but we do see them graduating from police training. Why is this important? The film sets up the differences between high school students less than a decade ago, and students today, how dangerous their world has become and not particularly legal.  The emphasis on Schmidt and Jenko graduating from police training creates the dichotomy of the older generation still wanting to be of service to society, whereas this younger generation is more about themselves, even under the guise of the environment (more on this important topic below).
Jenko had made it through high school being popular by making fun of others who tried. Going into their "new school," Jenko tells Schmidt, "Never try at anything and always make fun of those who do." Having driven a Ford Mustang into the parking lot, Eric (Dave Franco) encounters Jenko and seriously jokes with him, "How many miles to the gallon does that get? Like 10?" to which Jenko replies, "Like 7. . . .  Do I smell egg rolls?" Jenko and Schmidt discover that Eric's car runs on recycled frying oil from a local restaurant. It turns out that Eric is also the dealer for the HFS drug.
This interior is a Christian church, Aroma of Christ Church, specifically for Korean Christians (because of a grotto with the Virgin Mary outside the church, invoking Lourdes specifically, it is possibly even a Catholic Church, emphasized by the sign they see inside the church "God Is Love," the title of Pope Benedict's first encyclical).  Each of the people you see sitting in the pews are from the police force and are going to be going undercover. Here on the immediate right is a slice of Ice Cube portraying Captain Dickson, the one in charge of the covert operations.  Why is there a "Korean Jesus" being crucified? After Schmidt and Jenko realize what they are going to be doing, Schmidt kneels at a communion railing and tries to pray, telling Jesus how "freaked out about going back to high school" he is; why does this happen? The "Korean Jesus" symbolizes how "foreign" Jesus has become to people today, and the 21 Jump Street operation being housed inside a church is possible because no one is going to church anymore for it to be used as a church, which means, the police force now has to do the work churches once did, teaching kids to turn to God instead of drugs. Interesting, Schmidt's parents smoke pot.
Eric's radical environmentalism (he's also a vegan and worries about going to prison because they won't serve vegans) is all ago for mother earth, yet he cares little or nothing about fellow humans. What his car consumes is more important to him than what his peers consume, which brings up a word used a couple of times in the film: unnatural. Just because someone adheres to "nature" doesn't mean their actions are in accordance with what nature intended for us to do (for example, the casual sexual relations Eric and Molly have between them which obviously hurts and damages her emotionally and also invokes how unnatural it was for her father to have run out on her when she was growing up and how that damage is what "holds Molly hostage" when Walters--also a bad male role model--holds Molly hostage).
Which brings us to the supplier:  Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle).
It's only the first hour of the first day of school and all ready, Schmidt has been able to find the dealer, Eric, pictured above, and make a purchase for two hits at $20 a pop. While Eric works on the school yearbook, he insists Jenko and Schmidt do the drug there so he knows they aren't narcs.  "Only narcs say narcs," he tells them, which is what he originally called them. Eric, however, successfully manages to deconstruct himself a number of times, including when he realizes Schmidt is an undercover cop and Eric can't believe Schmidt betrayed him: "You bought us Taco Bell," he says, even though he's vegan.  
It's interesting the way Mr. Walters is introduced to us, because immediately after taking the drug and Schmidt and Jenko are unable to vomit it up, they encounter Mr. Walters in the hallway who notices their passes are expired so he "makes a deal" with them to keep them out of the principal's office. He also immediately recognizes that they have done drugs, so this should alert the observant viewer that the one willing to make a deal is (literally) the dealer.
Mr. Walters the high school coach who is also the supplier for the HFS drug. He works with Eric after having caught Eric smoking weed and "made a deal with him," to sell more stuff. Why? Mr. Walters' teacher salary barely paid his alimony.  This provides us with the look at teachers who destroying kids instead of building them up and being role models to them (which most teachers do with very little thanks or reward). Mr. Walters complains of not having anyone who can run on the track, but look at him: because he hasn't "run the race" of Christ, he is not "fit" to teach anyone. The chips he eats informs us about what he "takes in" (not to mention the empty bottles there on the table from the mini-bar). Mr. Walters is a man of his appetites (which is probably why he got divorced, resulting in the alimony he had to pay) and that's the reason why Schmidt shoots his penis off towards the end of the film (accidentally, but explained below).  In this picture, the pinatas are filled with drugs and drug money and, curled up with them on the couch as if they were his wife and kids, we see how he uses people as if they were no more to him than the papier-mache of the pinatas destined to be destroyed, just like himself.
Why are the drugs and the money transported via pinata?
It invokes the Oscar winning Steven Soderbergh film of 2000, Traffic, when cocaine is transported in the shape of a doll (and other child's toys).  Pinatas celebrate birth (they are popular at birthday parties) but they carry the instruments of death; just as the Youtube student who died from the drug wasn't celebrating the birth of Christ--the Noel for us all--which led to his death, so the taking of what the pinatas hold is also a celebration of death, not life. It also reminds us of the problem we had in 2000, and how that problem hasn't gone away, it's gotten worse.
Arriving at prom, the three other guys with them are the nerds Jenko has befriended who are going to run the wire taps to record evidence they gather; Jenko also hooked them up with three prostitutes so they would have dates for the night...  At this point in the story, Jenko and Schmidt are off the force, so they are doing this on their own. When they were  kicked off for getting expelled (because Jenko was upset that Schmidt was getting too involved with being popular) there is a brief camera shot of the Korean Jesus crucified in the Church; whereas, when Schmidt made his original prayer, Jesus was extending his right hand with a dove in it (symbolic of the Holy Spirit), now that they have been fired, the dove is gone. In the shot above, as they were getting out of the limo, Jenko (you can see him still holding the box) released several white doves into the air for their "arrival effect."  The Holy Spirit is with them not only as the dove, but also in the limo (vehicles symbolize the Holy Spirit as well) and we especially know the Holy Spirit is with them when Johnny Depp shows up because that saves them.
Towards the end of the film, Jenko takes a bullet for Schmidt--showing how much he has matured throughout this ordeal, and can care about someone else other than himself--and Schmidt fires his gun at Mr. Walters, accidentally hitting him in the penis. Is this more crassness? Actually, no.  The penis is the symbol of a male's manhood, and because Mr. Walters has failed in being a role-model for children entrusted to his care, he has lost his manhood has a result for not living up to the standard; when Walters (handcuffed) tries to pick up his severed penis from the ground with his mouth, it demonstrates how he will try to resuscitate his masculinity via his appetites (the mouth) again at a later date, even though it obviously won't work.
This is one of the moments when Schmidt chokes. He choked in the beginning of the film asking a girl to prom, then he choked when a drug user was evading arrest and he didn't do enough to stop him,  and instead of firing his gun like Jenko is doing, he throws his gun at the back of an escaping criminal. When Schmidt fires at Walters, Schmidt is "coming into" his manhood that has eluded him the whole film because he overcomes his fears and realizes what manhood really is by seeing what it is not.
When Tom Hanson (Johnny Depp) shows up, why does he get shot in the neck?
He gets shot in the neck twice, because the neck symbolizes what guides us (like a yoke or a collar) and twice in his life, he has allowed false, superficial things to control him and only when he is dying does he realize it. Why? Obviously, when we are losing our life, everything is being taken from us and we see what is really important, but more importantly, it's so the audience will hear the lessons about what guided his life so we can repent of making the same mistakes before it's too late. (Schmidt mysteriously gets stabbed in the back at his party; why? It foreshadows how Jenko will stab him in the back by sabotaging the school play, even though Jenko feels Schmidt is stabbing him in the back).
Of all the things to notice in this shot, his shoe laces are untied. Why? By this point in the shoot-out, he's shot several people, and getting a little crazy, possibly because he and Schmidt aren't on the best of terms still, and he's still hoping to bring in the dealer to get their jobs back, so those things guiding his will previously are starting to "lose their hold on him" during the heat of the battle with bullets flying around. 
One last little note about drugs.
Schmidt and Jenko have that huge party at Schmidt's house and Schmidt's parents return during it, and as Mrs. Schmidt is blowing up, she mentions that she knew Robert Downey Jr. when he was still on drugs and was still fun. Now, the little logo picture on the HFS drug wrapper is a tornado; given how well Mr. Downey's life is going now, do you think he would want to go back to that "stormy" lifestyle he worked so hard to overcome and that nearly ruined him? This hysterical monologue Mrs. Schmidt makes demonstrates the problem between reality and perceived living it up and having a good time, and how no one thinks about "paying the piper."
So why make another buddy cop film?
Because we all have talents, whether we are more like Schmidt or Jenko, none of us can do it alone, and films such as 21 Jump Street go a long way in reminding us of all talents and our needs, and how we shouldn't hesitate to let another shine so we can do our own shining later.
More on Jonah Hill can be found in my post Moneyball and the Great American Economy ; more on Channing Tatum can be found in The Eagle & the End Of the Known World.