Underclassman is primarily a string of clichés looking for a story.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The last two times I saw Nick Cannon in a picture, he was the best thing in an earnest but otherwise routine film called "Drumline" and the only thing in a dreadful but otherwise dreadful film called "Love Don't Cost a Thing." In between times he was a voice in the "Garfield" movie and filled in some supporting roles in other films. His career since being a regular on the TV show "All That" in 1994 has not exactly soared to the heights of cinematic glory, and 2005's "Underclassman" only confirms that he may not yet be ready for big-screen superstardom.

Indeed, from the looks of "Underclassman," he seems almost ready to return to television. "Underclassman" is a pretty bad motion picture, and it's one that Cannon was somehow allowed to co-write, co-produce, and star in. I guess it's good to have somebody in Hollywood who has faith in you. Fortunately, he's young and he has nowhere to go but up.

The premise of this presumed action-comedy has Cannon playing an L.A. bicycle cop, Tre Stokes, who goes undercover at a posh, private prep school, Westbury, to investigate the suspicious death of one of its students. Stokes tells us up front that he's twenty-three years old, but he's going to pose as a high schooler. Well, in the movies this makes perfect sense because actors in their twenties traditionally play teens. In fact, all the other students at the prep school look like they're in their mid twenties. But why is the movie called "Underclassman," which would denote a freshman or sophomore, when clearly Stokes is supposed to be a high school senior? Yeah, I know, don't ask; it makes as much sense as anything else in this film.

Westbury is the kind of school where just looking at the cars in the student parking lot tells you about the student body: Corvettes, Porsches, BMWs. As a poor black kid, Stokes doesn't exactly fit right in.

The movie sets a tone in the opening sequence as Stokes chases after a pair of thieves, the thieves in a truck and Stokes on his bike and then on a motor cart, all to the tune of loud, blaring hip-hop music. The chase manages to demolish most the L.A. beachfront as things get knocked over and blown up. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how the film ends as well. And now that I think about it, this is how most of the middle goes, too.

By the time the movie is over, Stokes has uncovered a drug ring, a stolen car ring, and a murder; not bad for a kid whose behavior in or out of high school is more like that of a kindergartner. Cannon appears to fancy himself in this movie a young Eddie Murphy from "Beverly Hills Cop," wisecracking his way around, trying to be hip but charming. In "Drumline" we saw that Cannon could, indeed, be charming; but here his character is mostly annoying, with nothing funny to say or do and no personality to build on.

When it isn't pretending to be an action thriller, the film tries to be a comedy, but it offers nothing to prove a case for either option. "Underclassman" is primarily a string of clichés looking for a story. Stokes, for instance, is the son of a well-liked police officer and he's trying to live up to his dad's reputation. He's being tended to by a stereotypical commanding officer and father figure, Capt. Delgado (Cheech Marin), an ill-tempered hard-ass with a heart of gold. At school, Stokes meets a beautiful young Spanish teacher, Miss Lopez (Roselyn Sanchez), and you can guess where that goes. There is also a pompous headmaster, Felix Powers (Hugh Bonneville), who speaks in a British accent; a campus hotshot, Rob Donovan (Shawn Ashmore); a campus wannabe, Alexander Jeffries (Johnny Lewis); and a pair of largely inept fellow police officers, detectives Brooks (Kelly Hu) and Gallecki (Ian Gomez). It's surprising how so many throwaways from other movies could all fit into this one.

Stokes proves he's an expert basketball player, which helps him get in with the campus jocks. He's also an expert watercraft racer and an expert marksman and an expert martial artist. He even tries his hand at rugby, which helps fill in the screen time with more hyperkinetic activity. As a last resort, the screenwriters turn to fart gags and bathroom humor to keep our attention, but nothing works.

"Underclassman" is one noisy event after another, with almost no story and even less characterization to hold things together. By the time it's over, the viewer realizes the script, the direction, and the editing are so jumbled, it's easier to watch and understand "Syriana" that this piece of nonsense.

Do I even have to mention that the movie ends with yet more loud music and another high-speed chase, plus a shoot-out and an explosion? Right; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

The video quality is mostly excellent, although the colors can be brighter than real life much of the time. I suppose that's appropriate for the subject matter. The image size on disc closely matches its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio, here rendered a little less wide at about 2.13:1 across my television. It's done up at a high bit rate in anamorphic widescreen (enhanced for 16x9 TVs), the picture exceptionally clean and clear, with good black levels and fairly sharp delineation.

The audio is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1 processing, creating a suitably modern surround field. The sound screams at us from all five speakers, most of it well handled, with plenty of mid bass, a wide frequency range, and strong dynamics. But to what effect? To have our ears offended by five channels instead of two doesn't seem a fair trade. Expect lots of crashes, splashes, booms, and bangs from the front and rear speakers, but a nice musical ambience in the softer passages, too.

The extras start out with an audio commentary by director Marcos Siega, co-writers Brent Goldberg and David T. Wagner, and producer Andrew Panay. Among the four filmmakers, they point out every obvious bit of activity in the movie. Next is a seven-minute making-of featurette, an extended promo for the film actually, followed by four minutes of cast auditions. The best of the extras are fifteen deleted scenes in widescreen, with optional commentary by the director and co-writers. The bonuses conclude with sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at five other Buena Vista releases; English and French spoken languages; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
"Underclassman" might better be called "Underwhelming" or "Underachieving" or "Underdeveloped" or "Underbaked" or "Underdone" or "Underinflated" or "Undermade" or "Undernourished." It's certainly not "Understandable" how such a movie gets financed and made, unless it's purely on Nick Cannon's name appeal. I'm just not sure why people think Cannon's got a marketable name. So far, except in "Drumline," he hasn't shown much.


Film Value