Annapolis from director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) is not, as many have attempted to describe it, a new take on An Officer and a Gentleman, the fine film from 1982 starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger and in an Oscar winning performance as the drill sergeant, Louis Gossett Jr. This is a good thing because the world doesn’t need “A Midshipman and a Gentleman” as an update to Taylor Hackford’s 1982 gem.
What “Annapolis” is, is the story of a kid who grew up in the shadow of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, with dreams of his own and his mother’s that he would someday attend. The son of a shipbuilder, “Jake Huard” (James Franco) had his determination to get into Annapolis harden into a steel resolve when his mother died. His shipbuilder father (Brian Goodman) discourages his dream, for two reasons. One, because he doesn’t think that Jake has what it takes to succeed within the rigors of the Navy’s Academy Program, and two, because he happens to be Jake’s boss in the shipyard where they both work and he doesn’t want to see Jake throw away a promising career as a riveter.
But fate intervenes in the form of a last minute opening at the Naval Academy and in the shape of a Tactical Officer, “Lt Cmdr Burton” (Donnie Wahlberg) who thinks that Huard can make it through the program and become a Navy officer. Huard seizes the chance to go to the Academy, even though he will be starting out well behind the other “plebes” in his class.
The question is, does “Midshipman Lt. Cole” (Tyrese Gibson) think that Huard has the right stuff, because he is Huard’s Company Commander and he is the one who will make or break Huard. Lt. Cole’s combat experience as a prior service enlisted Marine makes his classmates regard him with something approaching awe. He himself, having seen combat, holds himself and the potential officers he commands, to a higher standard and that includes Jake Huard.
The result is serious friction between the two, especially when Jake’s late start and less than stellar academic skills put him behind the learning curve of his roommates and the other members of the company. One place where “Annapolis” fails is that a critical moment of film that was visible in the movie’s trailer was left on the cutting room floor. In that moment, Cole is asked by “Ali” (Jordana Brewster), one of the midshipman officers in the company supervising Huard “Why are you so hard on him”. Cole’s answer which dealt with his perception of Huard’s potential would have given the audience a much different perception on why Cole is so hard on him. Instead, absent this critical piece of information, the audience has no idea why Cole is so tough on Huard and most assume he doesn’t think Huard has what it takes. An assumption supported by things Cole says in what was more probably attempts to motivate him.
But in spite of this flaw, the film works. It isn’t just another film about coming of age while going through military training. It is about learning that there is no I in team and this is a lesson that Huard will learn in the boxing ring, as he enters “The Brigades”, to get his shot at Cole fair and square.
James Franco is good as Huard, giving the character a strong, serious yet compassionate edge, a will to win no matter the cost. That will to win, shown early on in a key moment is what he will have to depend on to get through the toughest year in his life. Jordana Brewster gives a good performance, but she just doesn’t seem young enough for the role, something that is important when making a film about college-aged people.
On the other hand, Tyrese Gibson is brilliant and perfectly cast as Lt. Cole. I don’t know if he was channeling some Marine that he shadowed for a few weeks or something, but he was quite good in his role. He had the prior service “edge” and it was razor sharp. Also, look for a terrific performance by Vicellous Reon Shannon as the one roommate who won’t abandon Huard no matter how hard the slogging gets, and as “Twins” Shannon gets some nasty treatment of his own that we’ve seen before. Back then it was R. Lee Ermey’s “Gunnery Sergeant Hartman” giving Vincent D’Onofrio’s “Private Pyle” the business over a jelly donut hidden in a footlocker in the Kubrick master work Full Metal Jacket. This subplot is updated, lightened, but the issue of food and weight and an obstacle course was clearly lifted from FMJ and the afore-mentioned An Officer and a Gentleman.
The boxing scenes are crisp and clean, and so are the training scenes as Huard prepares for the fight of his life. Not just against Cole, but against all of the demons within that he must set down if he is to succeed as a plebe and survive his first year at Annapolis. You won’t just have to survive it if you plunk down your money at the box office. You will enjoy it.