Blending the hoary conventions of boxing movies into the well-worn basic-training template, “Annapolis” is a slick if not especially novel military recruiting film whose plot is considerably less developed than its leading men’s abs. James Franco and Tyrese Gibson scowl and strut and should make the hearts of teenage girls all atwitter, and that’s about the only audience that won’t see most of the punches telegraphed well in advance. Perhaps every generation needs its own “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but Franco’s second starring vehicle of early 2006 should be more of a middleweight, box office-wise.
Jake Huard (Franco) has grown up across the water from the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy, driving rivets into the hulls of ships by day and boxing at night. And while his dad (Brian Goodman) doesn’t expect much more from him, Jake gets the opportunity to fulfill his late mother’s dreams when he’s offered late admission into the academy’s grueling officer program.
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Jake is fine in the brawn department, but he’s a little short on brains — the exact opposite of his pudgy roommate, derisively nicknamed Twins (Vicellous Shannon), who’s a whiz at the books but can’t clear the wall on that damn obstacle course. Both are thus subjected to their share of dehumanizing abuse, with the toughest instructor, Midshipman Lt. Cole (Gibson), training his sights on Jake, who receives support from another superior among his overseers, Ali (Jordana Brewster).
Drifting along like a traditional basic-training film with at best a half-metal jacket, “Annapolis” takes a turn in the second half as Jake begins training for the Brigades, a boxing competition that will potentially afford him a shot at the merciless Cole. This is previewed fairly early on, as the trainees are thrown into the ring to prove their mettle. Although the Brigades are a longstanding tradition at the academy, all this plays more like a plot contrivance than a test of character.
Franco, also featured in Fox’s period release “Tristan & Isolde,” is certainly in great shape, and he’s convincing enough as a hard-knocks, blue-collar youth learning to rely on others while being toughened and molded by a starched African-American drill instructor. At one point, he even protests, “I’m not quitting!” It’s just that somehow, it feels as if someone has made this movie before.
The strongest element in Dave Collard’s script, in fact, sparks to life thanks largely to the performance of Shannon, who is both funny and occasionally touching as Twins. Shipped off to Annapolis from a small town that feted him with a parade, he dreads the prospect of not making the cut.
Brewster, by contrast, simply looks as if she parachuted in from a shampoo commercial — a degree of license tolerable in most movies that’s conspicuous and incongruous in this spartan environment. Then again, the Jake-Ali relationship is all tease, since fraternization between plebes and their superiors is strictly prohibited. Otherwise, the pic is notable for its diversity in casting, with Roger Fan and Wilmer Calderon rounding out Jake’s roommates.
Director Justin Lin (who made his solo debut with “Better Luck Tomorrow,” starring Fan) exhibits considerable proficiency in shooting the boxing sequences, where the work by the sound technicians is especially impressive, making every blow crackle as if it had landed on the skull of the person sitting next to you.
Still, the instructors consistently stress to their charges that the class is only as strong as its weakest plebe. Judging “Annapolis” by its most appealing attributes (among all the cliches): It’s not bad superficially, but neither is it all that it could be.