A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

ANNAPOLIS jj

2006, PG-13, 108 mins.

Jake Huard: James Franco / Lt. Cole: Tyrese Gibson / Ali: Jordana Brewster / Lt. Cmdr. Burton: Donnie Wahlberg / Twins: Vicellous Shannon / Coach McNally: Chi McBride

Directed by Justin Lin /  Written by Dave Collard

 

The new naval drama, ANNAPOLIS, was reportedly made without any cooperation from the US Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense…and it painfully shows. 

Clearly, the CIA was not involved either because intelligence is all but vacant in this water logged and would-be moving morality play.   After watching ANNAPOLIS several descriptors crossed through my mind – predictable, routine, conventional, one-dimensional, and lethargic.  If ANNAPOLIS was a consumer than it would appear that it has taken a quick trip to the Cliché Store and has subsequently bought out all of its merchandise.  The film lacks color, spirit, energy, and any vitality in its story or characters and it seems to have no particular interest in how the bloody navel operates itself.  This is a work that is so bland and flavorless that vanilla ice cream, by palpable comparisons, is a delicacy.

It’s a shame to see good, decent talent be reduced to having their names associated with redundant dribble.  Its main star, James Franco, is an actor that I have admired in small dosages, but lately he seems to be languishing in one flaccid film after another with each one becoming increasingly more uninspired and limp.  He brilliantly played the title role of the legendary rebel without a cause in the made-for-cable docudrama DEAN in 2001.  He also gave a very respectable performance (where he carried his own against Robert DeNiro) in the terribly underrated CITY BY THE SEA from 2002.  He also was solid as a World War II army captain in THE GREAT RAID.  Yet, one of his other films from earlier this year, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, turned the charismatic and handsome leading man into a dreary brute and sullen, monosyllabic bore.  Franco was lacking something in that film.  Oh yeah, it was allure, whimsicality, and panache.  Now comes his starring turn as a young recruit with aspirations of greatness in ANNAPOLIS and – superficially at least – it's not a bad performance (he certainly invokes more life and personality into his role here than he did in the murky TRISTAN AND ISOLDE), but when he is forced to utter such woefully stilted lines that belong more in daytime soap operas, then there is very little more for him to do here than cash a mighty fine pay check.

ANNAPOLIS is also a shame considering the director.  Justin Lin sure did make a name for himself at the 2002 Sundance film festival with his spunky and creative BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, an Orange County indie film that chronicled the comings and goings of a group of well off Asian youths.  With ANNAPOLIS under his belt the strain of a promising talent that has succumbed to the power and lure of the big-budget, Hollywood machine seems terribly evident.  The film demonstrates how even gifted filmmakers can have their own unique artistic sensibilities stunted by completely disposable, dime-a-dozen fodder that only the suits that head up corporations could dream up.  Now, Lin would later follow up ANNAPOLIS with the third film in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS TRILOGY, humorously subtitled TOKYO DRIFT, but at least that was a bad film that knew it was bad, which is why it was ironically and ultimately good.  ANNAPOLIS is not even an amusing bad film.  It’s simply a dull one that takes its pretentious story a bit too seriously.

The film is an awfully weird bit of hybrid cinema.  I guess that I would aptly call it an amalgamation of AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, ROCKY, and TOP GUN, with a curious amount of focus on the second film mentioned.  The previews for ANNAPOLIS make it out to be a gritty and uplifting melodrama about the Navy and the sacrifices people make to be all that they can be. The film’s poster has one of those shamefully cheeky and unintentionally funny taglines – “50,000 Apply. 1,200 Are Accepted. Only The Best Survive.”  So, my question is this: why not focus squarely on what it really is like for those 1200?  Moreover, why bore us with a witless and moronic boxing story angle that we’ve seen in way too many countless films before?  Oh wait, this time we get to see the underdog fighter get trained by a super hot girl that he has a crush on.  Gotta admit, never seen that in a film before.  Yet, with a babe like Jordana Brewster in my corner, even an out-of-shape bum like myself could be compelled to mop the floor with an insurmountable opponent.

The film is oddly dysfunctional.  Instead of a through investigation into Navy recruitment practices, policies and boot camp life, it focuses our attention on whether or not Franco can face a much more lethal pugilist at a grand naval boxing tournament.  That is not to say that Lin does not provide for interesting sequences of squared circle mayhem (the boxing fights are well choreographed and kinetic, but not in any revolutionary way; let’s face – there’s not much more that can be aesthetically done in boxing films anymore).  Unfortunately, it’s the boxing angle the completely drains away anything else of substance that the film could retained. 

Franco plays Jake Huard in the film, a plebe that has been accepted to the Navel Academy at Annapolis.  He was on a seriously long waiting list at first, but with the personal recommendation of Lieutenant Commander Burton (Donnie Wahlberg), he is given a swift and smooth admission.  This is great news for the young Jake, who really hates his day job at a shipyard that builds navy vessels.  At least at night he was able to purge his lack of fulfillment by engaging in the amateur boxing rounds.  The film never makes it abundantly clear what Burton sees in Jake.  Sure, he can take a Balboa-esque pounding and then come back and dish out even more, but does this make for a leader?  Beat’s me.

Jake is happy to leave his job for a brighter future in the navy, but he seems even happier to rid himself of his father, who seems like a fairly nice chap but is painted in broad and stereotypical strokes as the dad who fails to love and respect his son.  Obviously, it does not take a Nostradamaus to see that the son will abruptly leave the father, get himself into a predicament that is more than he bargained for (like…say…a big boxing match versus a dangerous opponent) and then ask his dad for support.  The dad, at least at first, won’t promise anything, but I am sure that any of you out there would be willing to bet your morning donut on the fact that the old man will show up in the crowd, be spotted by his son, and all will be forgiven.  Yawn.

Things do not go smoothly for Huard.  He’s in good shape and has inner drive, but he lakes a respect for authority.  This, of course, leads him to have some serious problems with his drill instructor, the Louis Gossett Jr. part played by the fairly non-emotive Tyrese Gibson.  Cole is not really a Navy head honcho (he actually works for the marines), but he nevertheless gets under Jake’s skin really fast.  Maybe because he is – as most movie drill sergeants go – a grade A son of a bitch.  Or maybe because he picks on the weak?  He hounds and torments the obligatorical overweight cadet (played thanklessly in a nice performance by Vicellous Shannon) who can’t get his lard ass through a tricky obstacle course.  Well, it’s Cole’s job to get the right men, not the wrong men, but in films like this we are supposed to hate the man, despite his airtight logic.  Gee, I wonder if Jake will form a bond with this tubby cadet, so much so that – if something were to happen to him at the hands of that damn drill sergeant – he would have to reclaim his honor against him in the ring?  Yawn.

Now, ANNAPOLIS is kind of modestly appealing in the sense that – yes – it facilitates a small need on out parts to want to see the drill sergeant get his tail kicked by the young and likeable cadet.  Yet, the film lacks complete believability with this premise.  On paper, there should be no reason whatsoever why Cole should not hand Jake his heart back to him on a silver platter in a boxing match.  Last time I checked, marines were fairly lethal combatants that are – essentially – trained to kill.  Now, a boxing match is not war, but are we honestly supposed to believe that a flimsy amateur like Jake would stand one round against a tough hombre like Cole?  Sure, Rocky was a bum that went the distance with Apollo Creed, but I believed in Rocky as a street wise and irrepressibly tough fighter that could take any amount of punishment and still come back for more.  There is no suspension of disbelief here with Franco as Jake, who more or less comes across less like he’s from the streets and more like he’s hot off the cover of GQ.  Maybe a more grizzled and gnarly actor could have helped, but it ultimately does not matter.  The concluding boxing match is as anti-climatic as they come.  Then again, Jake does have Jordana Brewster in his corner, so how could he loose?

And speaking of Brewster, am I honestly supposed to buy her as one of the Navy’s commanding officers?  She’s about as convincing in the role as Hilary Duff might have been.  Brewster is evidently remarkably easy on the eyes, but her chemistry and budding relationship with Franco’s hero seems stale and forced.  The have the all-important meet cute.   He mistakes her as a whore in a bar, which would lead me to believe that any woman would not find this cute in the slightest.  Yet, the young man in question is James Franco and this is a fairly pedestrian film.  He could have called her mother a dirty whore and the script would still have her fall in love with him.  Yawn.

Why could this film not be more gung ho about the military?  Training/cadet films in the past have made for great entertainment, so why would the makers want to force us to suffer through a standard, run-of-the-mill boxing picture that seems so unreservedly cannibalized from the pieces of other mediocre boxing films?  I sometimes love the cinema for the way it explores old territory in new and fresh ways.  ANNAPOLIS could have actually said something about the Navy and the protocol involved with finding and training people.  As a patriotic and macho military recruitment film, ANNAPOLIS does not generate any interest in its characters or settings.  It does substitute the usual staple settings (the army and marine core), but it infuses it with a cornball story, phony human relationships, characters that seem more made up of cardboard and not flesh and blood, and a sports angle that never needed regurgitation (yet again) in a movie.  The only thing that could have made the film better would have been to take all of the human actors out of the equation and substitute rod puppets in their place.  A Trey Parker and Matt Stone all-marionette ANNAPOLIS would have been so much more entertaining.

ANNAPOLIS is a film that feels like the type of unwanted leftovers from a meal that you did not enjoy in the first place.  It masquerades as a thinly disguised rip off of the vastly superior AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMEN, not to mention that it also has the perseverance to be yet another in a long line of artificial and formulaic sports pictures.  ANNAPOLIS is not so much a wretched film as it is an unnecessary one.  It is a work that proudly marches on through an assembly line of lame and ham-invested movie conventions and intellectually bankrupted clichés.  There is something the makers left behind while making this film, most specifically appealing and invigorating characters, an introspective and absorbing story, and something noteworthy to say about the US navy and military.  ANNAPOLIS is a disappointing two for one special – it’s a boot camp and underdog-boxing picture, and neither is done with any flare, attentiveness, or ingenuity.  When it comes right down to it, the film’s heart and head are absolutely AWOL.

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