It's only February, and already James Franco is having a shitty year. The once-promising Freaks and Geeks star is making a bid for big screen leading-man status, and the two films he's chosen this year are both go-nowhere duds populated with D-list actors and bad hair. Arriving in theaters just two weeks after his amber-tinged, feather-coiffed period romance Tristan & Isolde, Annapolis tries to mold Franco into a wrong-side-of-the-tracks flat-top hero, the same thing Officer and a Gentleman did for Richard Gere, or Rocky for Sylvester Stallone. Only there's nothing and no one to care about in this film: no character who makes any sort of lasting impression, and no challenge you haven't seen a million times before in other basic-training underdog movies. Annapolis is like one of those over-the-top, no-budget kickboxing movies you see in the middle of the night on Cinemax, only it's not even that entertaining; it doesn't even have the balls to be laughably bad.
Franco is Jake, a shipyard worker who sits on the docks and stares, all teary-eyed, at the famous naval academy of the film's title. He dreams of better things than being a shipbuilder like his dad, who tries to convince him he's worthless. But by some unlikely stroke of luck, he's accepted to the most prestigious, competitive academy in the nation despite his subpar grades and obvious mental deficiency. There, his body will be pushed to its limits, his brain will continue to falter, and he'll almost give up but not before a comely young female commander (Jordana Brewster) and a ball-busting lieutenant (Tyrese Gibson) challenge him to "be all he can be," or whatever other hackneyed armed forces ad slogan the characters spit out instead of real dialogue. It all comes to a head at the Brigades, an annual boxing competition where Jake can finally prove that he's got what it takes to survive.
Most of Annapolis feels like a long, testosterone-fueled game of dress-up; the impossibly young cast looks downright laughable in positions of authority. Even Tyrese, who can usually be counted on to add some life to crappy movies, is buttoned-down and serious, like he's been taking acting lessons or something. (Bad idea.) Everything boils down to one big endurance test, not only for the characters but also the audience. See Jake scale a chain-link fence! Watch him fix a sinking ship in a simulation tank! Laugh as he flunks his sea-navigation test! It takes forever for director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) to establish the boxing angle of the movie, by which point Franco appears to be in autopilot mode. When one of the commanding officers shouts, "You look like you wanna hit me," Franco looks like he wants nothing more than to take a long catnap in a hammock.
The only thing worth mentioning in Annapolis is a minor supporting performance by the young Vicellous Reon Shannon, saddled with the role of the overweight sacrificial lamb whose failures (he just can't make it through that obstacle course) motivate our bland hero. Munching on Twinkies and getting berated by his superiors, his character is written to be a pathetic loser, but Shannon imbues him with a depth of feeling uncommon in generic movies like this. Forget Franco the tubby kid deserves to be a leading man.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].