Formula rogue-undercover-cop genre trappings mix with repetitive comic punchlines in a lifeless effort from screenwriters David Wagner and David Goldberg (The Girl Next Door). Tre Stokes (Nick Cannon—Drumline) is a fuzzy-chinned college-aged undercover LA cop who’s willing to chase escaping criminals by riding a child’s bicycle in hot pursuit.
So it is that when a case involving murder at an elite private high school, Tre coaxes his way with police Captain Delgado (Cheech Marin) to go undercover at the prep school as an overzealous student with a secondary ulterior motive of replacing his G.E.D. with a high school diploma. Even the chase scenes sag as debut director Marcos Siega disappoints audiences at every turn.
The crux of the film’s comic/dramatic tension comes from Tre’s shameful attempts at ingratiating himself into a clique of rich white kids with a penchant for basketball, rugby and Friday night house parties. Tre uses his winning basketball skills and glad-handed demeanor to impose himself socially and makes an audacious impression when he intercedes in a basketball league game to lock in a win for the clique’s struggling team. It isn’t long before Tre is initiating a loyal friendship with the clique’s leader and criminal suspect Rob Donovan (Shawn Ashmore) by getting arrested with Rob for defending him in an asinine street fight with a rival group of teen malcontents.
The picture hits its most spurious subplot note when Tre romances his sexy Spanish language teacher Karen Lopez (Roselyn Sanchez—Chasing Papi) while enjoying private tutoring sessions in the classroom. Tre is presented as a socially agile yet marginal student who only excels in Spanish language studies because he instigates private tutorial sessions as a means of securing a favorable grading curve based on his powers of seduction.
Underclassman recklessly undermines the idea that teachers and students should avoid engaging in romantic affairs. But this moral oversight is pawned off later as a sappy coda to the film’s fiery gun battle climax that connects the dots between drugs, stolen cars and the murder of a school paper reporter who attempted to blow the lid on a story about private school corruption. It seems that even in Beverly Hills journalists are targets.
For his part, Nick Cannon shows himself as an up-and-coming leading man with a limited range and a habitual style of comic acting mannerisms that puts emphasis on second-guessing his own performance. Cheech Marin is largely wasted in a straight man role that neutralizes his limited brand of humor. We don’t even get to savor the irony of the notorious pot-smoking Cheech in the role of a straight arrow L.A. police chief concerned with maintaining a luxurious lifestyle. Marin’s acting class line readings are especially colorless and lack any necessary precision timing or snappy inflection to tickle audience funny bones.
Underclassman has the look and feel of a made-for-television movie that will only offend audiences thoughtful enough to see through its cynical attitudes regarding race relations, stereotypes and greed. It might make you wonder how much things have changed since the days when Cheech and Chong movies generated belly laughs about bong hits and illegal aliens. MTW