Annapolis might have fared better as parody. A wholly unsurprising boy-to-man saga, it certainly understands its genre, and does the conventions to death, borrowing from any number of movies that have come before. Sloppy even in its precise reliance on formula, Annapolis piles on studio-condoned crowd-rousing moments (slow motion exertion in the rain, swelling soundtrack), none connected to another in any coherent way.
It is also straight-up male melodrama. Its ostensible emotional focus is second generation shipbuilder Jake (James Franco), who aspires to be a U.S. Naval officer. He got this idea, he mumbles a few times, from his dead mom, who used to take him across the harbor to Annapolis, so he could watch the men in crisp white uniforms and some other details that he doesn’t mention. (The fact that the movie was not, in fact, shot in Annapolis, but in Philadelphia, has generated some mild controversy or at least unhappiness in Maryland, which lost the money-generating production when the Navy refused to grant script approval.) Though Jake’s father Bill (Brian Goodman) discourages such dreaming, the son applies and gets in, a bit of information made improbably huge when delivered in person by Lt. Cmdr. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg), in impressive dress whites. The officer wonders aloud at the kid’s gumption, noting that he’s been accepted at the last minute because he has a recommendation from a congressman — apparently only because Jake pestered him for the letter for “34 straight days.”
Whether that means Jake’s grades are lame or his planning skills are lacking is never made clear. The drama nonetheless delivered, Jake agrees to appear at the academy at “0630.” Though his best friend (who has a Ben Affleckish, left-behind sort of look to him) doesn’t understand Jake’s ambition, he wishes him well, and observes, “I got dreams too, man,” you know, like “getting shit-faced” at the local saloon. Okay, so Jake’s resolve now has a frame: he wants not to be this poor schmuck. He wants to be Richard Gere. (Or maybe Jennifer Beals, in Flashdance — he wants not to have to be a welder.)
At school, Jake is deposited among multiculti bunkmates: insecure Twins (Vicellous Reon Shannon), self-loving Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), and hardworking Loo (Roger Fan, who played Daric in director Justin Lin’s previous, much better film, Better Luck Tomorrow, and by dint of sheer charisma, should have the lead in this one). While Jake finds something of a connection with Twins — they’re deemed the losers of the pack, Jake unable to keep up academically and Twins, also nicknamed “Butterball,” forever behind physically. When all the others have left him in their version of dust (shipshape and immaculately clean as their environment must be), Twins assigns Jake a nickname of his own — “Mississippi,” meaning that for him, Mississippi is the only state that ranks below his own, Arkansas, in terms of respectability.
The boys are competing, of course, for the attention of inspirational father figures (see also: Lou Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman), and Annapolis provides a slew of them. While it would seem the cadets have enough to keep them busy during their first year — having to get through all manner of obstacle and academic courses — they find another arena in which to compete, boxing. Annapolis’s famed Brigade Championships provide a focus for Jake’s angst, as well as a few more apposite movie clichés (see: Rocky, most obviously, or Girlfight, or Million Dollar Baby, or Somebody Up There Likes Me). His training involves montages comprised of big music and jump-roping, speed ball, and sparring scenes, training with boxing coach McNally (Chi McBride), who treats Jake like a plebe, expecting superhuman feats of strength and solid moral conduct.
When Jake lapses into pouty lunkheadedness (the script is both formulaic and inconsistent, a good trick), coach make him jump rope in a corner instead of training for the Brigades. If stubbornness and selfishness and self-pity are to be considered virtues, Jake’s aces. And so Burton comes back on the scene (having been disappeared for much of Jake’s initial schooling), agreeing to spar with him after hours. Burton might be partly convinced by the faith in Jake exhibited by another officer in training, Ali (Jordana Brewster). Very pretty and not convincing for a second, Ali jogs with Jake, instructs him on his punches and stance, and then predictably falls onto the mat with him during one 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 (at least until later in the movie).
As dull as this romance is, the film’s most compelling relationship does involve Jake, despite the fact that he is resolutely uncompelling. But he has some help (and oh yes, trouble) from hardnosed unit leader Midshipman Lt. Cole. As performed by Tyrese Gibson, Cole is a one-man movie — hotheaded, angry, stern, encouraging, an ex marine not quite persuaded that he should be in the Navy, or an officer, for that matter. Cole is also, no surprise, an excellent boxer determined to beat back his upstart cadet, the one who’s been rebellious all semester, the one who most reminds him of himself. And yes, this is the essence of this melodrama — the boys find themselves reflected elsewhere, and fall in love with themselves. Jake learns important lessons, including how to persevere even when facing adversity. And when Cole boxes Jake, Tyrese shows off his famous torso.