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'Annapolis' knows the drill all too well

Drama set at Naval Academy, with James Franco and Tyrese Gibson, is rife with stereotypes.

January 27, 2006|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

Neither lagging military recruitment nor movie attendance is likely to be helped by "Annapolis," a by-the-numbers underdog drama set at the storied U.S. Naval Academy in the Maryland port of the title. James Franco stars as Jake Huard, an Annapolis shipyard worker who rivets by day and hoists beers with his laborer buddies at night, but has long harbored a notion that he belongs at the imposing military institution just across the water.

Then, to the strains of a clouds-parting music score that practically anoints him, Jake is accepted into the academy, where in his plebe year he encounters unforgiving rules, unwavering brotherhood, an unsparing superior and an unexciting boxing movie. Bizarrely, "Annapolis" isn't a glimpse inside the workings of an officer farm -- which might have made for an anthropologically nifty tale -- but instead "Rocky" in occasional pressed whites, with Jake's talent in the ring representative of his shot at respect in his company.

The story's dramatic buildup is toward the academy's real-life Brigade Championships, a pugilist smackdown in which Jake hopes to waylay Tyrese Gibson's ex-Marine midshipman Lt. Cole, the film's nominal villain but really just your garden variety boot-camp movie hard case. It's a little hard to get worked up over Cole's meanness when the worst thing he does is follow procedure in getting plebes kicked out over a rule infraction or for failing a physical test, but Gibson goes for bad-guy broke anyway in a performance composed almost entirely of steely glares.

The director is Justin Lin, whose stylish, stereotype-disassembling Sundance breakthrough from a few years ago, "Better Luck Tomorrow" -- about Asian American high schoolers caught up in very bad things -- indicated he might have a future tweaking mainstream genre fare. Better luck tomorrow, indeed, as Lin seems AWOL in his studio debut, giving in to every moldy turn of Dave Collard's script instead of amping the guilty pleasures of a military saga the way, say, a Scott brother would (Tony with the iconic "Top Gun," Ridley with the weird "G.I. Jane").

There's a sublime ridiculousness, for instance, in the pixie-ish Jordana Brewster playing Jake's trainer, especially after Hilary Swank's indelible contributions to female boxing verisimilitude, but Lin avoids making their fraternization anything other than pretty faces filling a frame. "Annapolis" does have one interesting connection to reality in that Franco -- a square-shouldered, intense young actor who won acclaim playing James Dean on television -- has been something of a stardom plebe himself of late: He's also in theaters showcasing the grimier, tearier side of his brooding talents in the Dark Ages love story "Tristan and Isolde." Although "Annapolis" shows he hasn't fully shed the specter of Dean, as when he imbues leaning against a fridge, hands in his coat pockets, with silent momentousness, Franco is a refreshingly offbeat screen presence and in lighter moments boasts an appealing smile.

He may be someone to watch, but too bad there's little room for emotional spontaneity -- acting, in other words -- in a rote Hollywood drill such as this.



MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language

A Touchstone Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution release. Director Jason Lin. Producers Damien Saccani, Mark Vahradian. Screenplay Dave Collard. Cinematography Phil Abraham. Editor Fred Raskin. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

In general release.

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