NETFLIX GRAVEYARD / UNDERCLASSMAN
WRITTEN BY CLARE MARTIN
At first glance, Underclassman seems a lot like the new 21 Jump Street reboot: a young bike cop sent undercover, sexual tension with a hot teacher, some dumb dalliances with underage coeds (the two girls insist that together they’re 34, so it’s all good), strange designer drugs being dealt, misunderstood rich kids mixed up in the criminal activity, countless reprimands from the police captain for reckless behavior, and a school authority figure behind it all the madness. But that’s where the similarities stop, because 21 Jump Street manages to make the predictable fun and exciting, while Underclassman just sucks. Simple as that.
Nick Cannon plays Tracy “Tre” Stokes, who goes undercover at the prestigious Westbury High School after one of its students is found murdered. It’s not too hard for Tre to blend in because 1) he is probably more immature than the rest of the students, and 2) all of his classmates look like they’re about 30. Naturally, Tre has a troubled backstory because he didn’t graduate high school and he wants to live up to his dead dad’s prowess as a detective. Touching and original, right? Yeah, I didn’t think so either. At some points during the movie Nick Cannon does manage to be funny and charming, but you can get thrown off by this quizzical squint-grimace he pulls all the time, like he can’t understand what’s going on around him.
Tre has to buddy up with Rob Donovan (Shawn Ashmore, best known as Iceman from the X Men film series), Westbury’s most popular student and the main murder suspect. They bond through street basketball, and because it’s street basketball Tre gets to do ridiculous things like flip the ball out of his shirt and pull down his opponents’ basketball shorts. Another intriguing fellow is Headmaster Felix Powers, played by none other than Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey himself (commonly known as Hugh Bonneville). There’s also a cameo by Cheech Marin, who huffs and puffs as Tre’s fed-up police captain, but of course gives Tre chance after chance to redeem himself.
For a relatively short movie (just about 90 minutes), it manages to pack in a LOT of action. There’s a jet ski race, a bike chase down Venice Beach, a car chase or two, a fist fight on the beach (so romantic), a fight on a boat ending in an explosion, and a paintball scene involving some poetic talk about Benedict Arnold. If it seems like I’m making a lot of laundry lists in this article, well it’s on purpose because I’m pretty sure that’s what the writers did when they were coming up with the screenplay. “Okay, we need this and this and this and this and let’s throw in a hot Spanish teacher” – I’d say that’s a fairly accurate description of the brilliant work happening in the Underclassman writing room.
Okay, now I’m going to spoil the movie for you which I hope isn’t too big a deal (because I’m sure after this you really want to watch it) – BUT LORD GRANTHAM IS THE EVIL MASTERMIND PUPPETEER PULLING THE STRINGS. I think that simple fact in and of itself redeemed the movie a bit for me. Instead of walking around Downton Abbey worrying about the family name and his funds, he is KILLING KIDS AND DEALING DRUGS. Who knew that Lord Grantham was such a bad ass?! He literally says, “Less of the drug dealers with scruples routine and more doing what you’re told,” when one of his underlings seems hesitant about offing Tre. HE’S COLD AS ICE.
In the end, I have to admit, I was rooting for evil Lord Grantham. He was far more interesting than Tre, with his daddy issues and penchant for doing the most destructive thing possible (Hm, let’s not sneak into the warehouse where the drug dealers are plotting, let’s bust in with this fancy car and ruin it for no good reason). Tre was just so utterly predictable and stupid, it’s hard to side with him. At least Lord Grantham goes out with a bang quite literally when he’s engulfed in the flames of the aforementioned boat explosion.
Underclassman on the whole presents itself without a single shred of intent to break with your expectations, or at least cheekily acknowledge its triteness like in 21 Jump Street. The film fully embraces, without irony or cleverness, the fact that you get exactly what you expect. Even the most naïve viewer could see practically every plot point coming – save for Lord Grantham, who is the film’s saving grace. But you know, underneath all of the clichés and dumb jokes in Underclassman, there were . . . more clichés and dumb jokes. That’s it.