Title: Annapolis
Genre: Drama, Romance, Sporet
Play time: 1h 48min
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriters: David Collard
Starring:James Franco, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson

Annapolis is profoundly silly stuff, and not all that great to boot, but it had enough genre appeal to keep me interested. There are any number of ways in which the film, directed by former indie wunderkind Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow), is obvious, formulaic and lead-footed, but it has its skillful moments, too, and winds up being just fitfully engaging enough to remain on this side of tedious. That something this old as the hills — and, let’s face it: trite — can still sort of work is a testament to the underdog story.

I first had occasion to read David Collard’s screenplay about a year and a half ago. At the time, I thought it wasn’t bad: a masterful, well-paced iteration of a formula, with a unique setting — the United States Naval Academy — and a genuinely engaging protagonist. I don’t really get tired of stuff like this: the story hasn’t died because it’s good, and it seems like every year, there’s a version or two that sneaks up on me and totally wins me over.

Annapolis, to be honest, is not really one of those. One serious mistake was diluting its basic, compelling Naval-Academy-underdog conceit with the third act focus on boxing (I know: boxing? Are you serious?) — though I think I enjoyed this when I read the script, seeing it translated to the screen, complete with the all too familiar extended training montage and quick-cut tournament action, is a bit dispiriting. Beyond that, the movie is too often just going through the motions: there’s a romance that exists for the sake of existing, the inevitable shot of the doubting, cynical father showing up late to his son’s big fight, an absurdly overblown subplot involving the perfunctory fat kid (though the kid, played by Vicellous Reon Shannon is probably the most memorable character here).

I want to say, also, that I have serious issues with James Franco as the scrappy misfit. There’s a bit of prejudice in that statement, yes, but it’s just silly. A much more interesting choice would have been to cast Franco in the Tyrese Gibson role (Gibson plays the über-tough ex-marine who lords over the academy’s Plebe class and is the man to beat in the boxing ring), and cast someone… well, someone who didn’t once play James Dean as Jake Huard.

On the other hand, maybe the casting wasn’t such a bad idea after all, since the most appealing thing about Huard — and about the film, for that matter — is the way he is motivated not by a desire for redemption, but by anger and spite. The opening scene shows a comeback boxing victory motivated by the sight of someone handing over bet money as Huard lays on the floor with the referee counting; the inevitable False Crisis during Christmas leave is resolved when Jake sees that his friends and even his dad have put together a “Jake’s Last Day at the Academy” pool. And while this sometimes leads the film to overplay its hand (“it’s no fun being underestimated, is it?” Jake whispers to Ali (Jordana Brewster) during a slow dance), it also makes the protagonist more interesting.

Tyrese Gibson gives a terrific, perfectly straightforward performance as the formidable Midshipman Cole, hitting all the right notes of anger, mild sadism and military hubris — listen to the way he growls “is this place ready for inspection” and tell me he’s not brilliant. And Lin, though abandoning any indie cred he may have once had (his next project is the second Fast and the Furious sequel), is generally quite competent, giving the movie a tone that’s appropriately somber without veering into the self-serious. Generally, the movie achieves what it should: I knew every frame, every plot turn, but instead of scoffing, I went along.

Ultimately, Annapolis is a dead end — little of what’s promising here actually pans out, and the film seems to surrender to its clichés with a sigh. But I liked it, so help me. Where inspiration fails it, workmanlike competence gets it though.

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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