That's Who You Are
“Wow. We started arguing about the first shot of the movie.” Annapolis writer Dave Collard is surprised to be reminded of an early disagreement with editor Fred Raskin and director Justin Lin, who had shifted the placement of young boxer Jake (James Franco), laid out on the mat in close-up, from being on his back to on his face. “It wasn’t an argument, I guess,” Collard laughs, “It was more a discussion.”
And with that, Jake is back on his feet, and the film is launched into its very acrobatic, saturated-color action. As he punches and turns, the frame pummels viewers with a mix of tight shots and low angles, looking in from outside the ring ropes, then rushing to keep up with the fast-moving, muscular bodies. The film’s physicality is of a piece with Lin’s stated upfront interest in “boxing and sports,” dating, he says, from “the glory days of my high school basketball years.” While his co-commentators laugh in the background, Lin makes his point: “In life, you can say anything you want… As soon as you step on the court or get in the ring, that’s who you are. If you suck, you suck, if you can tell who you are.” And with that in mind, Jake’s “journey” commences.
A wholly unsurprising boy-to-man saga, Annapolis understands its genre and exploits its conventions, borrowing from any number of movies that have come before. Repeatedly, the commentators indicate—subtly—the compromises they had to make and difficulties they encountered. Lin describes Collard’s script as the one that “stood out” among the many genre projects he was reading at the time—specifically, following his unexpected and huge success at Sundance with Better Luck Tomorrow. “It was very character-driven,” he says, “It really drew me.”
So drawn, he recalls, Lin took meetings to explain his approach to the film, and was surprised when his ideas seemed to make a dent among the executives, “because the studios have so much power, because they give the jobs to people and they can really play with you if they want.” He and Collard went into an office and worked on the script for six months, eating nonfat Jello at the Disney commissary and setting records on the Bongo board.
What they came up with is a broadly conceived male melodrama, with no small debt to An Officer and a Gentleman, Rocky, and Top Gun. It follows the “personal journey” (a favorite phrase for Lin) of second generation shipbuilder Jake, who aspires to be a navy officer. He got this idea from his dead mom, who used to take him across the harbor to Annapolis, so he could watch the men in crisp white uniforms. Though Jake’s father Bill (Brian Goodman) discourages such outsized dreaming, the son applies. Just five minutes into the movie, he learns that he’s been accepted, an announcement hand-delivered by Lt. Cmdr. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg, who, Lin says, “was like the older brother of the set”). The officer wonders aloud at the kid’s gumption, noting his recommendation from a congressman, relinquished because Jake pestered him for the letter for “34 straight days.”
His determination thus established, Jake is deposited among multiculti bunkmates: insecure Twins (Vicellous Reon Shannon), narcissistic Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), and hardworking Loo (Roger Fan, Daric Loo in BLT—Lin says this in an “inside joke,” using the same name twice, apparently a joke he liked so well he made it again in Tokyo Drift). Jake finds a connection with Twins in that they’re the “losers” of the pack, Jake unable to keep up academically and Twins, left behind physically.
The bonding process involves predictable stand-offs and arguments, including a scene that Lin identifies as the “censorship” scene. Explaining that “everyone knows” a PG-13 movie is limited to “one f-bomb,” he says that “everyone wants the f-bomb,” meaning all the actors want the big moment on screen (this suggests concerns with language in movies distract from more important business, but that’s another question) and he and Collard worked hard to ensure “we earned it, we appropriately put it in the movie, it’s motivated, everything’s great.” But the MPAA rejected it, saying, “You can’t ‘f’ your mother, I guess.” He sighs. “So, in the final cut, you just hear ‘mother.’” Lesson learned: “It always blows me away, that you can kill people, you can blow half the world away, and it’s okay to get a PG.”
Per formula, the boys compete for the attention of inspirational father figures, including their hardnosed unit leader, Midshipman Lt. Cole. As performed by Tyrese Gibson, Cole is hotheaded, angry, stern, encouraging, as well as an officer (the fact that he’s not sure he wants to be this might challenge Jake to question his own ambition, if he gave it some thought). As the commentators recall, Tyrese on location at Girard College in Philadelphia (standing in for Annapolis) inspired the boarding school students to yell out from their dorm windows, leading to the conclusion that, “Okay, this guy’s a star.” Unfortunately, this stardom does not distract from the movie’s focus on Jake, who is mostly dull as dirt.
No matter the distractions of Annapolis—say, classes, drills, hazing rituals, all rendered in montages (“I hate montages now,” says Lin). Jake remains committed to boxing (Lin and Raskin underline that Franco was also committed, that the boxing shots are “all James,” even though a stunt person is credited, which makes you wonder how the stunt person, Chris Carnel, feels about this sort of erasure). Annapolis’ famed Brigade Championships provide a focus for Jake’s ongoing angst, as well as a few more movie clichés (the DVD include the usual background, in the dull making-of documentary “Plebe Year: The Story of Annapolis” and “The Brigades,” about boxing, training, and choreographing fights). His training involves montages comprised of big music and jump-roping, speed ball, and sparring scenes, training with boxing coach McNally (Chi McBride), who expects superhuman feats of strength and solid moral conduct.
When Jake lapses into pouty lunkheadedness, coach makes him jump rope in a corner instead of training for the Brigades. Burton comes back on the scene (having been disappeared for much of Jake’s initial schooling), agreeing to spar with him after hours. “When you write this scene where they’re boxing but also talking,” says Collard, “You forget that when you shoot it, most people have mouth-guards… You can’t have a meaningful conversation with mouth-guards.” Lin adds, “But you do in Rocky movies.” Raskin says, “We watched a lot of boxing movies before doing this,” and Lin, citing Requiem for a Heavyweight, sounds surprised that the “older ones really stood up.”
That’s not to say Annapolis adheres to classic models. It lapses into silly stuff, partly a function of “the process,” including, as Lin mentions, test audiences, whose comments led to tweaking and reshooting, “something very different from the independent world.” Toward the end of “achieving a balance” in the film, Lin says, “It was just basically a massage all the way through, from the writing to the production to the editing. One of the biggest challenges was the love story.” If only the Lin’s interest in the “personal journey” might have held sway, without all the studio-ordained “components.”
Among these components is Jake’s relationship with the Top Gun-ish object of his affection, Ali (Jordana Brewster). His immediate superior officer, she disdains him at first, but he’ so cute, well, she starts jogging with him, sparring with him, and predictably falling onto the mat with him during a workout, so their faces can almost touch and they can almost kiss and she can pull back, informing him that she can’t be involved with underclassmen.
All this leads to Jake’s inevitable showdown match with Cole, who “sees himself” in Jake. Their relationship is the essence of Annapolis’ melodrama: the boys find themselves reflected in each other, persevere, and, as the commentators agree, share “great smiles.” “Everybody went through a lot,” says Lin at film’s end. “But it was worth it.” Yes, everyone agrees, it was “a great experience.” They’ve learned the art of DVD commentary. And they all want to work again.
Annapolis - Trailer