Some snide, nasty people will probably allege that “Annapolis” is an unacknowledged remake of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, it’s set on a completely different coast–the eastern seaboard rather than near Puget Sound in Washington state. What could be more different than that? For another, the gal for whom the working-class hero struggling to get through the program falls isn’t a local worker searching for a husband, she’s one of the instructors presiding over his training. There’s also no counterpoint romance between another local girl and one of the guy’s classmates; here the other plebes are just there for contrast–the ultra-perfect Asian-American, the overweight but needy African-American, the lackadaisical, fast-talking Latino. And perhaps most important, the protagonist’s chief tormentor, the company commander, isn’t just a by-the-book drill instructor, he’s a boxer–a perfect (though inadequately explained–what’s a Marine doing at Annapolis?) foil for the young hero, also an amateur pugilist–which allows scripter Dave Collard to graft a rah-rah “Rocky” story onto the larger one of a journey to success in the Navy against all odds.
But of course, there are some minor similarities–like the entire narrative about the driven young man, here called Jake Huard (James Franco), whose dead mother wanted him to go to Annapolis (which they could see from their house), but whose doubtful father would prefer him to stay home and work alongside him at the shipyard. Brought into the first-year class at the last minute by Lt. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg), Jake quickly makes more than eye contact with sweet Ali (Jordana Brewster), with whom he’d just had an encounter in a local bar. She just happens to be one of his superiors, and a much nicer one than either sternly demanding Company Commander Cole (Tyrese Gibson) or his malevolent right-hand enforcer Whitaker (McCaleb Burnett). Initially Jake insists on trying to make it in the demanding environment entirely on his own, though in doing so he upsets his straight-arrow roommate Loo (Roger Fan). It also doesn’t help his other roomies, helplessly chubby Twins (Vicellous Shannon), whom Whitaker especially delights in tormenting, and Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), who’s a little too easygoing to survive the rigorous course. Luckily the big Brigade Boxing Championships give him a chance to recoup, with the help of his friends and the sufferance of gym director McNally (Chi McBride). The upshot is a series of rounds, similar to the sort of thing one may recall from countless kung-fu flicks, which bring our boy up against both the super-confident Loo, the vicious Whitaker and the apparently invincible Cole. And when the big match comes, even Jake’s estranged father has the opportunity to show up and make things right.
The message in all this of course, is never to give up, but also that no man is an island: Huard succeeds only when he’s willing to set aside his pride and accept other peoples’ support. That’s all well and good, but as the plot plays out it not only follows formula but italicizes every element of it. So Jake’s battle to succeed can’t merely be personal or academic, it has to be transformed into a ring contest, too. Need a contrast to him? Estrada will do. Require obstacles for him to overcome? How about not just Loo but Whitaker and Cole, too? Need comic belief and blubbery sentiment? Twins will certainly provide both. And of course you must have romance–and the immediate attraction between Ali and Huard will give you that, however implausibly. There simply isn’t anything in “Annapolis” that isn’t either predictable or contrived (and usually both). And neither the slick but perfunctory direction of Justin Lin (a typical first-time comedown after his edgy, engaging “Better Luck Tomorrow”) nor the acting improves things. As in “Tristan & Isolde,” Franco is handsome but vacuous–indeed, here he’s even less winning, since he’s shorn of the long hair which did much of the thespian work for him in the medieval movie. Brewster isn’t credible for an instant as a tough-cookie midshipman (or is it midship-person?), while the impassive, brooding Gibson doesn’t have the chops to make the combination of Louis Gossett Jr. and Mr. T that Collard has cobbled together work. Fan (a carry-over from “Tomorrow”), Shannon and Calderon do what’s expected of them, as do McBride and Wahlberg–they’re not at all subtle, but they make the exaggerations tolerable–but Burnett goes way overboard, chewing the scenery like a piranha. There is a feeling of authenticity that eludes the drama, however, in the background, thanks to the production design of Patti Podesta, who turns Philadelphia’s Girard College campus into a reasonable facsimile of the Naval Academy; and though the cinematography of Phil Abraham is too glossy for comfort, it gives the movie a professional sheen. One can’t be nearly as kind, though, about Brian Tyler’s score, which traffics in formula even more than the script, and is both loud and shameless about it.
The message of “Annapolis,” that everybody needs help in life, is a good one. Too bad the filmmakers hadn’t absorbed it well enough to seek outside assistance with their own effort; perhaps some advice from elsewhere could have made for a better script. But Collard’s dialogue does include one line that seems dead on. At one point Huard is informed that “A company is only as strong as its weakest link.” It might have benefitted Lin and his associates to remember that a movie is only as strong as its weakest cliche. This one is a string of cliches, all of very weak indeed. And more than anything else, they’re what sink this leaky cinematic vessel.