"Annapolis," a military training story that segues into a boxing tale, follows many of the conventions of both genres. As with the tedious recent basketball pic, "Glory Road
," a virtual checklist can be made and filled out covering all the usual cliches that befit a film about an underdog coming into his own and triumphing over adversity. The difference between these movies is that one surrenders wholeheartedly to being derivative, one-dimensional, and broad in its emotions, while the other uses the familiar subject matter in smart and efficient ways, sticking to the internal human drama of its protagonist without becoming mawkish and over-the-top.
Jake Huard (James Franco) is a young man with a blue collar background who works alongside his distant father (Brian Goodman) as a shipbuilder, but wishes for something more out of his life. That chance arrives when a spot suddenly opens up at the famed Annapolis Naval Academy, and he is accepted into the program. As a Naval plebe, Jake's physical and mental strength are put to the test through a strenuous and exhausting training regime that finds many of his fellow comrades-in-training either dropping out or being kicked out. What starts as a means for him to live out the dream his late mother had for him soon becomes more to Jake, who wants to prove to his skeptical family and to himself that he has what it takes to succeed.
Directed by Justin Lin (2002's "Better Luck Tomorrow"), "Annapolis" is rather commonplace in its plottingthere is nothing to be found that comes close to reinventing the wheelbut it is well-told and consistently involving. When the Brigadesan annual boxing championship within the academy that pits amateur boxer Jake against hard-nosed, by-the-book Naval officer Cole (Tyrese Gibson)takes center stage during the third act, the film is suddenly threatened by the fresh memories of two previous boxing-centric pictures of the last thirteen months, 2004's masterful "Million Dollar Baby
" and 2005's forgettable "Cinderella Man
." Fortunately, director Lin and screenwriter David Collard (2003's "Out of Time
") wisely make the sports material not about who wins or loses, but about what Jake's very commitment toward doing the best he can against the imposing Cole means to him from a more personal standpoint. In other words, his performing in the championship is but the culmination of all he has achieved thus far as a prospective Navy officer in training who refuses to give up.
In his second leading film role in three weeks (the other was "Tristan & Isolde
"), James Franco starts off a little unsure of himself, much like his character of Jake, but gains command and confidence as things progress. Whether this was purposeful on the actor's part or simply a matter of him needing time to get comfortable with the part, Franco nonetheless pulls through and does solid, emotionally dynamic work. In the role of Ali, a feisty training officer whom Jake takes a liking to, Jordana Brewster (2001's "The Fast and the Furious
") is likable and convincing, mixing an appropriate tomboyish attitude with a drop dead gorgeous outer appearance. The romance between them remains low-key and unobtrusive, as it should, but is effective all the same.
Doing standout character work is Vicellous Reon Shannon (2002's "Hart's War
"), unexpectedly poignant as an earnest, overweight plebe whose limited physical abilities may cost him a slot at the one thing he has always wanted: to please his family and honorably become a Naval officer. As Jake's widowed working-class father, Bill, Brian Goodman (2005's "Munich
") is also worth noting in a role that could have been stereotypical, but is written more sympathetically. The father-son issues Jake and Bill face come to a predictable endBill shows up at the Brigade to cheer Jake onbut the way in which it is handled is cogent and low-key when it could have just as easily felt forced and sappy.
"Annapolis" won't be the year's most memorable effort (it won't even be this month's), but there is something to be said about a motion picture stacked with unoriginal plot elements hot off the assembly line that still manages to present said story with conviction, tough rings of truth, and a rooting attentiveness. Even the music score by Brian Tyler (2005's "Constantine
") demonstrates appreciable restraint whenever it starts to cross the boundary into melodramatic trappings. Finally, the way in which the film reaches its conclusionone that isn't quite as obvious as expectedproves that director Justin Lin's interest is, and always was, in Jake's coming-of-age as a determined and responsible adult. Instead of being a hokey and shallow retread of better movies, the intimacy and humanism with which Jake is afforded gives "Annapolis" a renewed identity.