`Underclassman' fails to provide laughs

MovieReview

September 02, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Underclassman is 90 minutes of Nick Cannon acting like he's already a major movie star, in an action comedy that must set some sort of record for cliches per minute.

Think I'm exaggerating? Let's see, we have the son trying to live up to his father's example, the mentor who promised the dying dad he'd keep his eye on the son, the brash kid who refuses to kowtow to authority, the streetwise black teen oozing street cred from every pore, the clueless but good-hearted white kid who wishes he could talk black, the rogue cop who refuses to play by the rules, the British schoolmaster (those Brits are all so smart!), the pampered rich kids desperate for a thrill, the tattooed druggie, the black youth who plays hoops like he was born with a basketball in his hand.

And all that's just in the first 15 minutes of this movie, the latest evidence that the Weinstein brothers, in the waning days of their reign at Miramax, were giving the green light to all manner of detritus.

Cannon, who thinks he's Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, is Tracy "Tre" Stokes, a Venice Beach bicycle cop who aspires to something greater. The film opens with him trying to make a major-league drug bust, culminating in a 90-mph beachfront chase that, in real life, would leave a few hundred people dead, but in this film establishes Tre as a cool cop struggling to make it big in a department run by fuddie-duddies. That the chief of police is played by Cheech Marin, in a relatively straight performance, should say all you need to know about this department.

Although Tre has broken every departmental rule, all the while showing little aptitude for police work that anyone in the audience can see, he's somehow picked for a choice undercover job. For reasons clear only to screenwriters David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg (Cannon also gets a story credit), he's sent to a fancy prep school to help solve a murder case.

The only thing credible about this aspect of the film is that Cannon looks 17, but let's not get hung up on veracity here. Instead, let's dwell on the actor's inability to carry a film (he's simply not a distinctive-enough talent) and the filmmakers' inability to come up with anything funny for him to do.

There are few genuine laughs in the film, but there are plenty of opportunities for Cannon's Tre to come across as an expert at everything a young audience might find cool, including basketball, speedboating, paintball, double-talk. He's also a brilliant detective, solving the case at hand with a speed, and with few apparent clues, that would make Sherlock Holmes blanch.

Meanwhile, back at school, he's making friends effortlessly with big-man-on-campus Rob (Shawn Ashmore), making sparks fly with his oh-so-hot Spanish teacher, Miss Lopez (Roselyn Sanchez), and getting on the bad side of his principal, who apparently hasn't been told an undercover cop is working his school.

All of this is perfunctorily directed by Marcos Siega, either unable or unwilling to rise above his material. There's little that's special about Underclassman, certainly nothing that Murphy and Eddie Griffin haven't done better in movies far funnier than this.

Underclassman

Starring Nick Cannon, Roselyn Sanchez, Cheech Marin

Directed by Marcos Siega

Released by Miramax

Rated PG-13 (violence, sexual references, drug material and some teen drinking)

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score * 1/2 (1 star and 1 half star)

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