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Annapolis   D

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Justin Lin
Writer: Dave Collard
Cast: James Franco, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Donnie Wahlberg, Chi McBride, Vicellous Shannon.

Review by Rob Vaux

I thought a lot about propaganda during my screening of Annapolis -- both its existence in this film and my specific response to it. Let's be clear: there is no real movie here. It's a two-hour recruiting ad for the U.S. Navy, and serves no other function. The question is whether or not that is a bad thing. Should people treat it as a regular film? Should they respond to the limp narrative, the clichéd characters, the pointless, never-ending scenes of training and training and training? Or should they just drop all of that and view it as an effective advertising tool, like a Coke ad or a Snickers billboard? The fact that I am a dyed-in-the-wool liberal -- and thus not instantly hip to the notion that the military is sexy -- muddies the waters even further. I gave Michael Moore a free pass with his various works of agitprop; am I not obligated to pay the USN the same courtesy?

Well, no.

For starters, Annapolis is sheathed in the pretense of fiction; while it oozes with exquisitely tailored shots of cadets in dress whites and the title academy glistening in the Maryland sun, it ostensibly presumes to tell a story. And as storytelling, it's a joke. Director Justin Lin focuses on the tortured first year of recruit Jake Huard (James Franco), whose late mother wanted him in the Navy but whose union father (Brian Goodman) felt he would do better in the shipyards with the old man. Huard's journey from rebellious punk to man of honor is unexceptional in every way, following the time-ravaged script so closely its nose is full of paper cuts. Franco does the steely-eyed thing pretty well and he's cut like a piece of prime rib, but Annapolis takes our sympathies so much for granted that it never realizes how dull and wishy-washy his character is. The obstacles thrown in his way are mined from every military movie of the last 50 years -- with particular attention paid to An Officer and a Gentleman, right down to a kick-ass superior (Tyrese Gibson, channeling the spirit of Tony Todd) who singles him out for special attention.

Lin draws the ensuing drama up in music-video terms, infusing everything with a shot of adrenaline and underscoring it with forgettable techno-rock on the soundtrack. Each development is routine, each new twist a flavor of something older. The tension between Huard and his father lacks resonance, while his slow, resolute progress through the ranks at Annapolis contains no sense of tension or buildup. There are some attempts to jazz it up with a boxing subplot, in which our hero's amateur pugilism is ultimately pitted against Gibson's. But the sequences fit awkwardly into the remainder of the film and, like so much else in Annapolis, contain nothing that even hints at originality. A few bright spots come with the supporting cast, but they are limited to the odd quip or two. Chi McBride has a nice presence as the academy's boxing guru, and Vicellous Shannon's doughy roommate is better developed than any other figure on-screen. Even their occasional clever line feels old hat, however: trundled off the assembly line like everything else in the film.

When one examines Annapolis more closely, the reasons for this hackneyed desperation become all too clear. It really doesn't want to tell a story; it doesn't want to give us interesting characters; it doesn't want to entertain us or enlighten us or challenge our previously held beliefs. It simply wants us to know that the U.S. Navy is the coolest place on the planet, and wouldn't we like to sign up? Every aspect of Annapolis exhibits the carefully crafted psychology of the pitch, as brazen and shameless as a used-car salesman. Its world of ethnically mixed beautiful people -- training as one and fulfilling their every potential -- has no basis in reality. It exists only in glossy flyers and recruiters' speeches, presenting life in the military as an endless wet dream whose tough patches serve only to make one stronger. There's even a too-pretty drill instructor/love interest (Jordana Brewster), designed to key in on all those frat-boy fantasies about a woman in uniform. (Real-life military trainers -- regardless of gender -- never make you say, "Wow you're hot!" They make you say, "I'll do whatever you want, please don't hurt me.") All of it smacks not of filmmaking in the ideal sense -- as a form of drama, however flawed -- but simply as a marketing tool.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with marketing tools in the right context. Annapolis has something to sell, of course, and in the balance of things, its product could be a lot worse. But the Navy shouldn't need Touchstone Pictures to help win people over; it shouldn't need to hide its commercial behind the facade of a night at the movies. And if it does, maybe it should find a better way to do it than a soulless piece of standard-issue nothingness like this one.

Review published 01.27.2006.

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