Underclassman (2005)


Nick Cannon’s been on a roll. Seems like everything he’s touched recently turns to good publicity, if not precisely gold. His MTV game/skit show Wildin’ Out is a hit and renewed for a second season, his semi-controversial summer single ensured his name was everywhere, and most folks were happy to remember Drumline instead of Love Don’t Cost a Thing.

And now comes the bad news. The 25-year-old second coming of Will Smith is starring in one of old-Miramax’s last gasps, the abysmal Underclassman. Here he plays Tre, a young cop with daddy issues: seems his father was a much respected L.A. detective, and now the son is a screw-up. Busted down to bike-copping by his captain, Victor Delgado (Cheech Marin), he still gets into trouble during a vehicular chase, a stunty business contrived only to grant the film a formulaic action opening: speeding, crashing, banging, flipping. Somehow Tre’s reassigned, this time to go undercover in a preppy L.A. high school where some kid’s died suspiciously. And so the title is motivated. I guess that’s something.

From here, this unoriginal, not-raucous-enough-to-be-offensive movie just turns inane. Before you can say, “Drew Barrymore,” Tre’s got himself a spot just outside the cool-kids-on-campus clique. As he angles to inside, in order to learn who knows what about the initial death and related crimes, he finds that said cool kids are stealing cars to fund a drug ring for their shadowy adult boss-man. To fit in, Tre plays the black kid cliché, a slacker student with decent hoops skills, apparently passing well enough to fool the population.

The dupes include the chief suspect, the dead kid’s best friend Rob (Shawn Ashmore), and inept wannabe hip-hop-slanger Alex (Johnny Lewis) (whose phrasing, he says, emulates “how they say it in the concrete jungle”), as well as their bodacious Spanish teacher Karen Lopez (Roselyn Sanchez). She develops an inexplicable affection for Tre — whom she believes to be her student — when he plies her with unfunny wisecracks about chocolate giving his home-ec project (cake) more “flavor.”

Much as Tre loves himself, the captain has not sent him in totally alone; his police actions are monitored and supposedly aided by two other detectives, Brooks (Kelly Hu), who for some reason carries a cup of coffee in every scene, and Gallecki (Ian Gomez), who botches one posh neighborhood stakeout by taking time to relieve himself in a manicured hedge. Tre’s adventures include repeated run-ins with the captain, the headmaster (Hugh Bonneville), and the alpha-boys. Tediously, he always brings the gaudy patter and never has much to say.

You don’t imagine that this awful outing will hamper Cannon’s career trajectory (Will Smith had his own embarrassments, of course, including Wild Wild West and Bagger Vance). But it might behoove him to take some minor stock (Cheech, on the other hand, seems a lost cause). He’s not the only actor, young or old, to make a terrible choice recently — the finally ending summer season is full of examples, goodness knows. Still, you hope that Cannon, burdened as a young black man in a business that eats figures like him for breakfast, will choose more wisely, even if that means saying no.