James Franco’s second January movie, “Annapolis,” is no improvement on the first, “Tristan and Isolde.” But at least the star doesn’t seem hopelessly miscast. Back on American turf, he seems both at ease and more animated than he did sharing scenes with British actors.
This time Franco plays Jake Huard, a poor shipbuilder’s kid who enters the Naval Academy and is instantly targeted as a loser. Offended by boot-camp rhetoric and racism, he rebels against the status quo, but only just enough to keep the military establishment on their toes.
When he hits a superior officer (Tyrese Gibson) who has been taunting a particularly vulnerable soldier (Vicellous Reon Shannon), you know Huard won’t be headed for the brig. In this best of all possible military worlds, all rights are wronged, all drill sergeants are benevolent and no one gets away with torture.
Produced by Disney, the movie is a by-the-numbers mixture of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” with Franco in the Richard Gere role as an officer in the making, and “Top Gun,” with Jordana Brewster’s commander-trainer filling in for Kelly McGillis’ flirty aeronautics instructor.
Once Brewster is introduced, you know exactly where her character is headed. The same goes for Huard’s difficult father, his most supportive friend on the shipyards, and his chubby, suicidal roommate, who is addicted to the mantra, “Before you achieve, you must believe.”
Huard prefers to describe the challenge differently. “It’s not a job, it’s an adventure,” he claims without much conviction. The script by David Collard, who worked on television’s “Family Guy” as well as the Denzel Washington thriller, “Out of Time,” doesn’t stray far from the hoariest clichés of military drama.
Neither does Brian Tyler’s music, which swells and strains to create a patriotic fervor that is otherwise almost absent. During the final scenes, the movie hints that some Annapolis graduates are off to fight somewhere, but that’s about as close as it gets to suggesting what their preparations are all about.
The director, Justin Lin, is best-known for his credit-card-financed 2002 film about Asian-American high-school kids, “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which won a following at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The independent spirit he brought to that picture has been thoroughly obliterated here.
While he can’t do much with the narrative, or a mostly wasted cast that includes Donnie Wahlberg and Charles Napier (blink and you’ll miss him), Lin does give his editor, cinematographer and sound technicians a workout during the fight scenes. These episodes are close-up and personal, and they provide a visceral excitement that is otherwise lacking. They’re particularly welcome as interruptions during the film’s embarrassingly maudlin final stretch.
“Annapolis” does avoid the tired romantic triangle of 1955’s flag-waver, “The Annapolis Story,” in which John Derek and Kevin McCarthy competed for Diana Lynn, but it could almost have been made in 1955. Aside from the mild sexual references and PG-13 swear words, not much has changed in half a century.