Granted, Miramax isn't exactly hyping Underclassman; it's been on the shelf for so long that the soundtrack still features the original, politically incorrect version of the Black Eyed Peas song "Let's Get Retarded" (long since retitled "Let's Get It Started," on the album and in the popular consciousness). But even if the film had been better advertised, it's nothing special, and Cannon's work is unimpressive. Then again, the same could be said for Drumline, yet somehow it appealed to a lot of people.
Cannon plays Tre, a young bicycle cop on the Venice Beach beat, who aspires to be a detective even after a chase sequence ends in rampant destruction -- for which Tre's police report features the line "I was all up on they ass." You might wonder how a youngster with sloppy language and policing skills ended up a cop, but then you see that the chief of police is Cheech Marin. Clearly he was high when he made that hire.
No, wait, the real explanation's even worse. Cheech, whose character here is named Capt. Victor Delgado, made a promise to Tre's dead father that he would take the boy under his wing, and therefore he seems determined to forgive each and every fuck-up, though sometimes he'll throw a tantrum and take his time to recant. Also, Tre is a perfect marksman. If you're thinking, "Gee, bet he misses a shot at some point in a way that has major significance to the plot," you're way too smart for this audience.
Delgado's such a pushover that he lets Tre take an undercover assignment even though the kid has no experience. He goes undercover at a prestigious private high school to solve a murder, and since most of the actors playing students here look to be well into their 20s, Tre fits right in. His goal is to befriend popular jock Rob (Shawn Ashmore, Iceman in the X-Men movies) and get information from him, but that's going to be hard, because Rob is a spoiled rich white boy (i.e., racist), and Tre, is, well, from the 'hood (i.e., he's really good at basketball and has souped-up hydraulics on his car).
Some fairly standard shenanigans ensue, with the only unique point of interest being a rugby game -- it stands out because it's the first time in any recent film that a black guy is shown trying to play a traditionally white sport and is utterly humbled. But not to worry, basketball is the more popular game at the school, though they've never considered having someone black on the team (seems like they'd never even seen a black person). You have to know where this is going. And when the clichéd high school culture clash stuff stops, there's clichéd cop movie stuff going on.
It's difficult to put the finger on what exactly went wrong here. Granted, the plot treads familiar ground, but it does integrate its hackneyed stories in new ways. With the right actors, the high concept might have worked. Cannon simply doesn't have the chemistry with his co-stars that he needs -- it's as if he's trying to perform a one-man show despite being surrounded by more capable folks like Ashmore. There's also an edge that's missing; a twentysomething male in high school should be a situation rife with uncomfortable, potentially illegal possibilities, but instead Tre falls for his Spanish teacher (Roselyn Sanchez) and keeps things totally chaste. Even the obligatory wild party goes off without much of a hitch.
Punching up the action wouldn't have hurt either. When the villain's identity is revealed, he simply isn't a believable physical threat to Tre. And director Marcos Siega -- who has made music videos for Blink-182 and 311, thereby ensuring himself a special place in hell -- fails to make the action sequences pop as they should. Tony Scott, or even a less experienced Jerry Bruckheimer protégé like Simon West, could have done so effortlessly.