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Film review

'Underclassman' fails credibility test

When did the police force start hiring kids? Actor Nick Cannon is likable, but he's not believable as a young cop going undercover at a prep school.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published September 1, 2005

The most original writing in Underclassman is the pseudonym of a bit player, a tattooed hulk misspelling his mean disposition as "Vishiss." Otherwise, Marcos Siega's movie is a smudged paint-by-numbers police story with every cliche except a 24-hour deadline to solve the case.

It's the same old thing, although Siega and two lazy screenwriters believe skewing it younger will make a difference. That includes casting Drumline's Nick Cannon, 24 going on 17, as the hero, never considering that his hip-hop personality and reckless manner wouldn't allow his character to be in a position to solve anything.

Cannon plays Tracy Stokes, a Venice Beach bicycle patrol officer causing massive damage in the opening credits, pedaling after a van filled with stolen toys. Even the loot in Underclassman is juvenile. The all-terrain vehicle Tracy hops aboard at one point is a prelude to the personal watercraft, paintball, basketball and other games Tracy uses as investigative tools. Siega uses them as filler.

Despite his attitude - would he really be allowed to speak to superiors like this? - Tracy is picked for an undercover assignment at the elite Westbury School. A student was murdered, a car theft ring is operating, and a new party drug twice as potent as ecstasy is circulating. Of course, they're all related, and Tracy pulls some whoppers of deduction to make little sense of it.

Meanwhile, Tracy sticks out like a sore thumb at Westbury, the new kid disrupting classes and nuzzling up to suspects like a puppy. Sure, that's how undercover operations work. There's an obligatory power clique led by a trust fund baby (Shawn Ashmore), whose unlikely conversion is necessary for the movie to end. This could perhaps be a gritty crime drama with grownups leading the way. Instead, they're relegated to objects of ridicule, disrespect and, in the case of a hot teacher (Roselyn Sanchez), pure lust. Cheech Marin seems to think the script is serious and that this will be his breakthrough as a dramatic actor. It's tough with hoary lines such as: "You've got good instincts, but you've got a long way to go to be the detective your father was."

Underclassman plays like a Disney Channel movie with guns and diarrhea gags. Cannon has a nice screen presence, kind of Will Smith lite, but has no business yet in this kind of action role. He's more effective when Tracy's playing ball and offering good advice about seat belts and safe sex than when chasing gunmen and vanloads of toys. Next we'll be asked to believe Dakota Fanning as Police Woman.

Underclassman

Grade: D

Director: Marcos Siega

Cast: Nick Cannon, Shawn Ashmore, Roselyn Sanchez, Cheech Marin, Hugh Bonneville, Kelly Hu, Angelo Spizzirri, Johnny K. Lewis, Vishiss

Screenplay: David T. Wagner, Brent Goldberg

Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity, sexual situations, drug content, teen alcohol abuse

Running time: 98 min.

[Last modified August 31, 2005, 09:26:08]


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