September 02, 2005


Directed by Marcos Siega Starring Nick Cannon, Shawn Ashmore and Cheech Marin

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

In the wake of the popular Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks series, studios have been quick to line up the next The Mod Squad and 21 Jump Street knockoffs. The latest example, Underclassman, features Nickelodeon's Nick Cannon as a streetwise undercover cop who enrolls in a posh private school to investigate the death of a student.

This feature-length debut by Marcos Siega gathered dust on the shelves for so long that it is actually opening in the States on the heels of his follow-up, Pretty Persuasion. The delayed is likely due to the fact that none of the rising stars that might have made Underclassman a draw have really gone anywhere: Cannon has flunked his two rap recording tries and his starring turn in Love Don’t Cost a Thing after leading the cast of Drumline; and screenwriters David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg's Risky Business rip-off, The Girl Next Door, wasn't exactly the next raunchy teen blockbuster.

A closer look at Underclassman clearly reveals Wagner and Goldberg also to be unashamedly plagiarizing Stephen Chow’s 1991 starring vehicle, Fight Back to School. The alarming similarities between the two suggest something beyond mere coincidence, as their respective protagonists both accidentally bust some smugglers, court sexy teachers and finally earn that elusive popularity during the course of their school infiltrations. While Fight Back is hilariously silly, Underclassman turns out to be a half-hearted by-the-numbers effort.

Given that Siega is best known for those cheeky blink-182 music videos, fans might expect the same irreverence in his movies. But Underclassman is a disappointing rehash of action comedy textbook material straight out of the Michael Bay/Brett Ratner school. When Cannon reaches for his gun, one can pretty much foresee the reflexive John Woo slo-mo that has been exercised to death by all the directors who specialize in ADHD filmmaking.

The film also fails to make the comedic grade, with Siega missing opportunities to play cultural clashes for laughs. The stereotyping here is mostly inoffensive, but scenes of Cannon fumbling the meaning of the word "soirée" and stabs at white-bread activities like rugby, jet skiing and paintball, as well as vignettes of wiggers hanging tough, attempting Ebonics and getting their asses whupped on the basketball court, are just plain banal.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.