on January 27, 2006 by Mark Keizer
Taiwan-born director Justin Lin made a Sundance splash in 2002 with the low-budget "Better Luck Tomorrow," a character-rich, absorbing story of wayward Asian-American teens. Four years later, with the release of the character-deficient, expendable "Annapolis," he sets the land-speed record for selling out. And while he may cherish whatever luxury items he buys with his studio paycheck, next time he should pass on material that doesn't play to his strengths or simply isn't ready to be filmed. The script, credited to ex-"Family Guy" writer Dave Collard, unsheathes the hoariest clich├ęs of multiple genres, brought to life by high-and-tight haircuts atop empty white uniforms.

James Franco plays Jake, a shipyard welder who dreams of attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Jake's supervisor at the shipyard is his cold, unsupportive father (Brian Goodman), who raised him after the death of Jake's mother. When last-minute dropouts create an opening on the roster, Jake, by virtue of having badgered a congressman into sponsoring his application, is accepted into Annapolis. His plebe-year bunkmates are the usual multi-cultural crew, led by Hispanic Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), Asian-American Loo (Roger Fan, from "Better Luck Tomorrow") and an African-American nicknamed Twins (Vicellous Shannon).

Accepting the burned-out torch from "An Officer and A Gentleman's" Louis Gossett Jr., former singer Tyrese Gibson plays Lt. Cole, whose duty is to administer soul-hardening degradations that make Jake increasingly angry. But the battle of wills between Jake and Cole, the movie's main conflict, feels manufactured from start to finish. Jake's reasons for his seething dislike of Cole are never satisfactory. Cole's constant barking that Jake "doesn't have what it takes" isn't all that damning considering that graduates are being trained to defend our country from terrorist attack. It's possible that Jake dislikes his superior officer because he makes cadets do excessive amounts of push-ups. But those are, ironically, company-wide punishment for Jake's failings. Late in the film, a cadet washes out after failing an obstacle course test by a mere four seconds. Jake, enraged that Cole won't give the kid a break, physically attacks him. Why the film thinks we should dislike Cole for enforcing the rules of a 156-year old military academy is a mystery, but it's typical of how the film sacrifices everything at the altar of emotional expediency.

The whole affair comes down to a who-cares boxing match, the only option that allows the movie to resolve all its conflicts without resorting to dialogue. The Brigade Championship is the academy's yearly boxing tournament, and Jake has been itching to face Cole in the final round. Our hero is trained by hot female Midshipman Ali (Jordana Brewster), for no other reason than it gives her something to do and justifies her being named after a famous boxer.

The major cast members perform with an opening-weekend kind of half-hearted exuberance, somehow aware that the movie will dissolve quickly upon absorption into the marketplace. Franco, whose combination of hard jawline and soft face seems right for the role, is a cold fish. Gibson walks the walk, but can't talk the talk: He's handsome and chiseled, but can't push his lines out with force befitting a military taskmaster. As Twins, the junk-food hoarding small-town hero, Shannon makes the best impression, since he has the fullest backstory.

It's almost insulting that a movie this forgettable is set in one of the greatest, most storied military institutions in the world, one that routinely spits out battle-ready Americans willing to die for our freedom. In fact, the United States Navy rejected the producer's request to film on the Annapolis grounds. Since they were able to see story deficiencies that Disney could not, the studio may want to consider sub-contracting the Navy to write script coverage. Starring James Franco, Tyrese Gibson and Jordana Brewster. Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Dave Collard. Produced by Damien Saccani and Mark Vahradian. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual content and language. Running time: 108 min

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