For me, the most memorable part of “Underclassman” (Marcos Siega) wasn’t watching it but waiting for it to begin. Twenty minutes before the 8:10 p.m. showing, I was one of five people in the audience. I’ve been to the AMC theatre at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, GA often enough and over a long enough period of time to say confidently that such an empty theatre is uncharacteristic. Most of the people who watch evening showings at Phipps arrive ten to twenty minutes before start time. In this case, however, the other thirty-five viewers didn’t file in until the previews had begun to roll. Siega’s comedy is playing in the farther reaches of metro-Atlanta, but not in Dunwoody, Duluth, or Alpharetta—suburbs heavily populated by the film’s target teenage audience. Given the geographic centrality of Phipps and its demographically diverse patrons, I wondered if only forty Atlantans had nothing better to do with their Friday night. As the lights dimmed and Miramax Films’ logo appeared, I was prepared to be adequately entertained or moderately in pain for ninety-five minutes. I got a bit of both.
“Underclassman” follows LAPD bike cop Tracy Stokes (Nick Cannon) and his determination in proving his worth and accountability to his boss Captain Delgado (Cheech Marin) by going undercover as a student at The Westbury School to investigate a homicide and stolen luxury vehicles. Tracy must get close to a group of basketball stars led by Rob Donovan (Shawn Ashmore), find clues, and maintain his cover. Though Siega’s film competently tackles the infiltrating and probing, and there is a short-lived storyline involving an undercover DEA agent, there is little focus on whether Tracy’s classmates or teachers suspect he is anything but a student. Even the hot, Spanish teacher Ms. Lopez (a perfectly cast Roselyn Sanchez) doesn’t grow suspicious. Furthermore, there’s no convincing motive behind the puppet master’s drugs and car-stealing plot. Money may be a sufficient reason to commit crimes in real life, but in films there has to be something more. He briefly sputters his disdain for the student body’s socio-economic status, but trash talk doesn’t cut. The characters are also either blandly one-dimensional (Rob and friends) or formulaically stereotypical (Tracy, the detectives, the Spanish Teacher)—the latter is preferable to the former. Predictable is better than lifeless.
What “Underclassman” lacks in narrative and characterization caliber it half-way makes up for in the hilarious one-liners that are mostly exchanged between Tracy and Detectives Brooks (Kelly Hu) and Gallecki (Ian Gomez). Nick Cannon, who may look familiar because he was in “Drumline,” can hold his own. Even if his wit and charisma are entirely scripted, he pulls it off well. “Underclassman” is funny, but one is easily sucked out of the story world. For example, during some of the action scenes (car chases, jet ski races), you start to wonder if stunt people were used and if you can spot them. Moreover, like most films set in high school, the students look like they’re old enough to rent a car. Cannon, on the other hand, actually looks and behaves like he could still be a teenager. The upside is that you believe his interactions undercover. He doesn’t have to act a teenager; mental age speaking, he still is one. The downside is the question of how his character got to work an undercover case when he was only a bike cop. The commissioner pulled some strings because he “fits the profile”?
The soundtrack is also cause for distraction. The Black Eyed Peas’ song “Let’s Get Retarded” plays during one of the basketball game scenes. Since when does getting “retarded” refer to something desirable? Although the basic storyline could have been saved for a third installment to the “Fast and the Furious” films or another “Veronica Mars” episode, “Underclassman” didn’t make me feel as though I wasted my time or money. However unfortunate or sad it is that people enjoy experiencing mediocre quality cinema, if you have nothing more stimulating to do on a Friday night, “Underclassman” could provide the entertainment—not enlightenment—you seek.