As fate would have it, I didn't have my Cop Movie Cliché bingo card handy when I watched "Underclassman." It's a shame, because I know I'd have won.
Tracy Stokes (Nick Cannon) is a reckless, over-eager young bicycle cop in Los Angeles, where his blustery captain (SCORE) regards him as something of a loose cannon (SCORE), the sort of cop who gets the job done but who leaves destruction in his path (SCORE). Stokes' dad was a cop (SCORE), though, and he wants to honor the memory of the old man (BINGO!).
When a student at a snooty private school is killed, the cops borrow a page from "21 Jump Street" and enroll the baby-faced Stokes as a student so he can infiltrate the group of cool kids who may have been responsible. Stokes is urged to blend in and not draw attention to himself; however, he is 1) black in a mostly white school, and 2) a goof-off and a screw-up. (Cop in a disguise or undercover situation that would never fool anyone: SCORE.) He makes literally no effort whatsoever to blend in. The reason? This is a comedy, and making him a fish-out-of-water is "funnier" than having him do his job and fit in.
He gets a crush on his Spanish teacher (undercover cop falling for one of the people he's deceiving: SCORE), befriends the Big Man on Campus who might be involved in the killing, and thinks he's about to bust the case wide open when in fact he's just screwing up a Drug Enforcement Agency sting. (Local cop unwittingly blows "four months of deep-cover work!" by another agency: SCORE.)
But there IS something larger afoot here, involving a stolen-car ring and a drug deal and a few other standard procedural-drama plots, and darned if Stokes isn't going to solve it. Unfortunately, that blustery boss of his (played by Cheech Marin) tells him he's screwed up one too many times and takes him off the case (SCORE). Actually, he says he's firing him altogether, but then Stokes keeps hanging around the police station, so maybe he's only suspended. However it works, Stokes keeps working the case even though he was thrown off it. (BINGO!)
Everything works out OK in the end, of course. He gets the girl, the case is solved, and he even finishes that last semester of high school he needed to finally officially graduate! (I'm not making that up, either.) There are car chases (SCORE), cars that blow up at the slightest provocation (SCORE), a sequence where two men fistfight on a speeding motorboat (SCORE), and deployment of two of the oldest chestnuts in the box: When a character says, "If I get so much as a scratch on this car, my dad will kill me!," that means the car will be destroyed, probably via explosion (SCORE); and if a movie has only one character who speaks with a British accent, that character is always the bad guy (BINGO!).
Through it all, there is Nick Cannon cracking wise, always quick with a jokey one-liner no matter how dire the situation. This is the sort of action comedy that usually stars Chris Tucker or Martin Lawrence or somebody like that; I guess Cannon got it because they needed someone youthful and not on drugs. Cannon's a likable actor, and his skinny, unassuming charm goes a long way toward making "Underclassman" tolerable. But his efforts are hampered by an absolutely terrible script by David Wagner and Brent Goldberg (authors of the equally terrible "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" and "My Baby's Daddy"), who, apart from ticking off the clichés wherever possible, set up one desperate, unbelievable situation after another. Here's Stokes being forced to play rugby! Here's Stokes having an impromptu teen party at the captain's house! Here's Stokes' backup being delayed during a stakeout because he's taking a dump in the bushes! Huzzah!
They also do the thing that I noticed recently in "The Longest Yard" but that happens often in lame comedies. One of Stokes' fellow cops is chubby and bald. Why? So that Stokes can make lots of jokes about his weight and his hairline. This is cheating, of course: The only reason the poor guy has a big gut and a bald head is that the script called for it. The character exists only so the main character can abuse him. Where's the fun in seeing Don Rickles take an audience member apart if Rickles planted the guy in the audience in the first place?
Anyway, that's three bingos for me. I'm taking my winnings and going home.
VIDEO: The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is pristine and beautiful, the bright, sunny colors of Southern California (and Vancouver, posing as Southern California) coming across nicely. Scenes set at night have a good balance in shades. It's a good transfer.
There are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
AUDIO: You can hear it in English in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound or 2.0 Surround Sound, or in French 2.0. The action scenes make full use of all the channels. Dialogue is crisp and clear (and usually not funny, but oh well).
EXTRAS: There's an audio commentary with director Marcos Siega and writers Brent Goldberg and David T. Wagner. The writers acknowledge that in rewriting the film to fit a reduced budget, they were frustrated to see some of the character and story nuances slip away. They don't seem to realize just how bad it got, though. They keep calling attention to "funny" lines that aren't, in fact, funny, like when Stokes falls off a Sea-Doo in the marina and his buddy asks him if he's OK: "Do I look like I'm OK? I think I just swallowed Nemo."
That's one of the lines the writers wanted to make sure we notice. Wow.
One annoying aspect of the commentary: They keep saying, "Here's a good line!" or "Listen to this" or whatever -- but because the audio of the film is turned down really low to accommodate the commentary, we can't actually HEAR the lines they're calling our attention to. Some DVDs balance the commentary with the film audio better than this one does.
The writers speak very frankly and good-naturedly about the dwindling budget, pointing out elements in the finished product and telling us what they were originally supposed to be. (The blacktop basketball games were supposed to be in front of a huge crowd in a gymnasium, for example.) They and Siega have a good rapport together and enjoy cracking jokes at the expense of the cast. They're having a good time watching their movie, even if no one else is.
We get five minutes of cast audition footage that should be interesting to fans of Nick Cannon, Cheech Marin or Roselyn Sanchez.
The featurette called "The Making of 'Underclassman'" is poorly named. It's not at all about how the film was made, but is instead seven minutes of people talking about how funny Nick Cannon is and how he was always ad-libbing hilarious stuff on the set, and Cannon talking about how great the director is, and the writers talking about how great everyone else is. Blah blah blah.
The 10 deleted scenes, totaling 20 minutes, were removed to "tighten" the film. They are heavy on Nick Cannon wise-cracking and can be viewed with an optional commentary by the director and writers, who once again demonstrate their ignorance of how bad their movie is: An alternate version of the opening scene is said to have been replaced because Cannon's character comes across as "too goofy.... The rest of the film is grounded in reality."
Oh really? Guys, have you SEEN your movie? Please.
The film was shot in 2003 then languished for a while, finally being released during the clearance sale that preceded the Disney/Weinstein divorce in 2005. (Other films you've already forgotten that got theatrical release during that time include "An Unfinished Life" and "The Great Raid.") Were it not for that, it might have sat on the shelf forever, or maybe earned its true fate: to go straight to DVD.
(Note: Most of the "movie review" portion of this article comes from the review I wrote when the movie was released theatrically. I have re-watched the film in the course of reviewing the DVD, however.)