A rookie police officer goes back to high school and stumbles on murder, corruption and some awfully boneheaded plot twists in the low-IQ action comedy “Underclassman.” So far-fetched as to make “Kindergarten Cop” look comparatively austere, and further hampered by its obnoxious motormouth of a protag, this late summer entry from Miramax should be expelled from theaters in a short order.
The appealing Nick Cannon (of “Drumline” and MTV’s improv-comedy series “Wild ‘N Out”) is given little opportunity to show off his appeal in the role of baby-faced LAPD officer Tracy “Tre” Stokes. An impulsive man of action, Tre has “good instincts” for a cop, but too often pursues those instincts at the reckless expense of orders from detectives (played by Kelly Hu and Ian Gomez) or his curmudgeonly superior, Capt. Delgado (Cheech Marin, whose discomfort with the material is palpable).
Not long after Delgado issues him a stern warning (“You’ve got a long way to go before you become as good a detective as your father was”), Tre talks his way into a dangerous undercover assignment investigating the mysterious death of a student at a prep school. Why someone so irresponsible and inexperienced would be entrusted with such a sensitive operation is only one of many unanswered questions provoked by David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg’s script.
Forced to masquerade as a student, Tre must cope with the predictable indignities of the school dress code, a sneering headmaster (Hugh Bonneville), and — as he never passes up an opportunity to vocalize — the visible difference between the school’s mostly lily-white population and an undercover brother like himself.
Dripping with attitude and stereotypical indignation, Tre shoots off one execrable racial quip after another (“Y’all need some color on the court!” he says, trying to ingratiate himself into a basketball game), most of which are met, appropriately, with stony silence. Character’s behavior is no doubt intended to convey some sort of loud-mouthed, anarchic charm, but all it does is point up what a lousy fit he is for this line of work: He’s about as undercover as Chris Rock.
After much effort, Tre befriends a popular student named Rob Donovan (Shawn Ashmore, the “X-Men” movies). Rob may or may not be linked to the slain youth, who had been writing several investigative pieces for the school newspaper. Escalating complications — a drug racket, an ex-student with a grudge against Rob and the theft of several expensive cars from the surrounding neighborhood — keep Tre busy, but not too busy to hit on his dishy Spanish teacher (Roselyn Sanchez).
Buried somewhere between all the flirting and gunplay is a nice lesson about staying in school and applying yourself, but otherwise, rarely has a film seemed more indifferent to what goes on in the classroom. Instead, pic projects a loopy, borderline-irresponsible vision of high school. Parents, to say the least, are nonexistent.
Displaying an obvious lack of confidence in his audience’s attention spans, helmer Marcos Siega (whose background is in musicvideos and commercials) piles on the set pieces — not only basketball games but a rugby match, a jet-ski race and even a paintball tournament — which are smashingly orchestrated but have little narrative relevance. Elsewhere, violence of the action seems to rise in inverse proportion to the story’s plausibility.