I was reminded early on watching 2006's "Annapolis" of the 2005 release "The Great Raid." No, "Annapolis" is not a war story, but both movies are about the military, both star James Franco, both try to be realistic, both are exceedingly sincere and well-meaning, and both struck me as extraordinarily ordinary. Understand, I thought "The Great Raid" was the better picture, but that isn't say as much as it sounds.
"Annapolis" tells the story of one young man's plebe year at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He's Jake Huard (Franco), who works in the shipyards across the river from the Academy, picks up a few bucks on the side boxing in local fights, but has always longed to attend the prestigious Navy school. He's an underdog, and this is a typical underdog story. Jake never got good grades or good test scores in school, never had any encouragement from his parents or friends, doesn't get along with his father, and so on. What he has got is perseverance, and after pestering the Academy long enough, they finally let him in. I'm not sure what the odds are on this, but they must be astonishing: He's a very average guy at a school that only admits some of the nation's most above-average young people.
The thing is, as Franco plays the part and as the role is written and directed, Jake is too average. He's average to the point of being downright dull. Sure, there are hints he's stubborn, independent, and persistent, but they are only suggestions; we really never see anything but a one-dimensional character in Jake, with Franco portraying him in a one-sided way, hardly ever changing his expression or giving us a glimpse of his inner self. Does Jake have a sense of humor, a sense of anger, a sense of indignation? We hardly ever find out. Now, if, say, a young Jimmy Cagney had starred, he might have impressed an audience by imbuing the role with a combination of brash cockiness and sullen depression. (In fact, Cagney did star in a military academy picture, "West Point Story," a corny musical of which he was the best part.) As it is, Franco is too doggedly earnest in his portrayal; real life needs more embellishing than this for a movie to succeed. As an example, think of the James Franco we see in "Annapolis" starring in the original "Rocky" movie. Would "Rocky" have become the phenomenal success it was without Stallone's colorful performance? I doubt it.
And it's not just Franco's character who is one-dimensional; it's everyone in the movie. Stereotypes and political correctness are the order of the day. Jake's father is the formulaic working-class dad, expecting his son to toil like him forever in the shipyards, which is all right as far as it goes because many parents are actually like that. But the movie takes it a step further, portraying the dad as jealous of any potential in his son that might elevate him above himself. At least, that's Jake's perception of his father, which in itself is another stereotype. Then there are Jake's classmates at Annapolis, a perfect blend of racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds. Jake, for instance, is of indeterminate cultural origin, and his roommates are Hispanic, Asian, and black. The movie never misses a beat.
What's more, the Academy's superior officers are stereotypes. Charles Napier plays Superintendent Carter, the square-jawed head of the school; Tyrese Gibson plays Lt. Cole, the hard-assed drill instructor; McCaleb Burnett plays Whitaker, the sadistic, racist instructor; Chi McBride plays McNally, the tough, demanding boxing coach; and Donnie Wahlberg plays Lt. Burton, the firm but fair recruitment officer. Most of these characters are so one-sided, I should think they would give the Naval Academy a bad name. I mean, it's true that any military training program has to be harsh in order to toughen people up physically and mentally for the realities of war, but the officers portrayed in this picture are brutal in the extreme, and, worse, they appear to take a genuine pleasure in their cruelty and bullying. What kind of a life must that be for them, let alone their students? According to the movie, torture and abuse are the Naval Academy's primary training assets. I'm not exactly sure if that was the impression the Academy wanted presented to the world.
The only character in the film besides Wahlberg's who is at all sympathetic is Ali Halloway (Jordana Brewster), a girl Jakes meets in a bar, who turns out to be yet another Academy training officer. She becomes a minor romantic interest in the film, but the script muddles her part, too. The character says she never gets involved with fellow Academy personnel, a dead giveaway that she will. And why is she hanging out at a bar directly across the river from the Academy if she doesn't want to get involved with anybody from the school? Is she the only Navy person to get a night off and drink? Well, in this film, yes, apparently, she is. It is unfortunate that the script gives Ms. Brewster little more to do than lend a pretty face to the proceedings; she reminded me of a young, spunky Karen Allen.
If the movie had limited the clichés simply to the characters, it might still have worked, especially if the film had given the characters even a little more depth, but the clichés extend to the movie's action as well. In the first half of the story we get a watered-down version of the boot-camp training scenes in "Full Metal Jacket," complete with drill instructors who must have gotten their training from R. Lee Ermey; and an overweight freshman plebe who can't quite cut it but whom Jake helps along. In the second half of the story we find Jake entering the "Brigades," a boxing tournament "where everyone is equal," and, of course, the movie comes down to the last bout in the finals with a "Rocky" style finish.
"When you step into that ring, you have three rounds to show them who you are." Yeah, right. And the filmmakers (director Justin Lin, screenwriter Dave Collard, and star James Franco) had 103 minutes to show us who they were. I hope the real Annapolis is not this run-of-the-mill.
The video has a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to it. On the plus side, the Buena Vista engineers transferred the movie to disc at a high bit rate in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen that closely matches its original 1.85:1 theatrical-release size. Definition is mostly sharp, and colors, including black levels, are very deep. On the minus side, the transfer often looks too dark and sometimes a little too rough; not with grain exactly, just rough. Hues, while deep, are frequently too intense and too dusky. The result is a picture that doesn't always look like real life (which, of course, it isn't; it's a movie after all, but you know what I mean).
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does its job in a modern, husky way. It exhibits fairly good dynamics and a reasonably wide stereo spread. Bass is deep enough to keep the woofer active, but it's not very loud, until the very end, which can be a blessing in some cases. And there is a limited amount of surround activity, confined largely to musical ambience and a whole lot of rain. Indeed, it is outside during a rain storm that one becomes aware that the rear speakers are even working.
There is nothing unexpected you'll find among the extras, but there are at least a few things of interest. Things begin with an audio commentary by director Justin Lin, writer Dave Collard, and editor Fred Baskin. It doesn't do a lot to enlighten one about the film, but, then, the film is not really very profound, either. Then, there are seven deleted scenes, totally about eleven minutes, with optional audio commentary by the same team. Following those items are two making-of featurettes, "Plebe Year: The Story of Annapolis," eleven minutes; and "The Brigades," ten minutes, a look at the boxing sequences in the film. Things conclude with sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at six other BV releases; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Annapolis" is not a bad film; it's just a common, uninspired one. Everything about its acting, pacing, and production values are fine, yet the story and characters seem like things we've all seen in countless other movies. The primary fun I had watching it was noting the number of other films that corresponded with each specific scene in this one, but despairing that all those other films were better. Still, if you haven't seen many other military movies or sports movies or underdog movies, "Annapolis" may not be as mundane for you as it was for me. In which case, it should work out OK.