It is difficult to have an opinion about a movie as bland as “Annapolis.” The experience of viewing the work of director Justin Lin (of indie acclaim for the edgy “Better Luck Tomorrow”) is somewhat similar to eating a bowl of bran flakes — while not unpleasant, there is nothing particularly special or delicious about the experience, and it does not inspire animated reactions of any sort. It is difficult to make a connection to any of the characters in “Annapolis,” which will leave audience members in an exquisite state of apathy and disinterest.
And while the film, as broadcast by its staggeringly creative title, is supposed to be about one man’s plebe year in the Naval Academy, the main substance of the plot ultimately boils down to a series of amateur boxing matches. A glimpse into the inner workings of the U.S. Naval Academy might have made for a compelling anthropological artifact, but Lin opted to take the trite tale of an underdog struggling to prove himself and infuse it with further banalities and vain melodrama (complete with an undeservingly epic score and scenes of contemplative introspection silhouetted against a blazing orange sunset).
“Annapolis” follows shipyard worker Jake Huard (James Franco) through his trying first year inside the gleaming walls of the naval institution he has admired for so long from across the bay, and catalogues his transformation from a wait-listed applicant, in whom nobody believed (save for a black and white photograph of his dead mother), into a stereotypical and idealized incarnation of masculine success. Such a transformation is out of sync with the decision to cast Franco in the lead role — Franco has so perfected his image as painfully-thin-because-I’m-so-intellectually-tortured (or perhaps coked-out) in prior roles that to see him as an overly built man in uniform is like staring at a jarring conglomerate of James Dean and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet his two-dimensional role and painfully simple dialogue hardly allow Franco any room to flex his acting skills. Besides which, he’s too busy flexing the sweat-glossed biceps of his new physique during the decidedly overdone physical training sequences.
Perhaps less jarring, but unimpressive nonetheless, is the performance of Tyrese Gibson (“2 Fast 2 Furious”) as Huard’s ex-Marine company commander Cole. Huard and Cole are scripted archenemies, but it is difficult to buy into the tension between the two men — communicated mainly through the latter’s narrow-eyed stares — when Cole is guilty only of doing what any commanding officer would do (i.e. dismissing corpulent plebes with clandestine candy bar caches).
As an interesting physical foil to both Franco and Gibson, Jordana Brewster (of the original “Fast and the Furious”) plays Huard’s comically pixie-like female superior Ali, whose imminent romantic involvement with her underling is both cliché and troublesome. And like both Huard and Cole, Ali’s character remains woefully underdeveloped, leaving the audience with nothing more than a wannabe G. I. Jane (Brewster does, indeed, resemble a pony-tailed Demi Moore) who still runs like a girl.
But this love story is nothing more than a formulaic addendum to the marrow of the film, which is dedicated to chronicling Huard’s boxing career and training for the ultimate “Rocky”-fest that is the Brigade Championship. It is at The Brigades that Huard is finally able to confront Cole, the boxing ring being the only arena where they are no longer commander and subordinate but rather two equals bloodying each other up to the raucous cheers of the crowd. It is also in The Brigades that Huard sees his only chance to earn respect in the eyes of his fellow midshipmen. The final round of the boxing tournament comes to be representative of Huard’s inner battle to rise above the incessant belittling he has endured his whole life and finally believe in himself (cue the aforementioned maudlin score).
In the end, “Annapolis” remains a weak collage of earlier films of the same genre and offers little in the way of originality or insight into the military-academy experience. And if a James Franco fix is all you seek, your better bet would be to sit through “Tristan and Isolde,” or at least half of it.