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'Annapolis' floats familiar themes, but also some engaging characters

Two James Franco movies in a month? First, ''Tristan & Isolde," which you can be forgiven for having missed -- it looked grimy and he was a sourpuss the whole time. And now ''Annapolis," which is more entertaining than any Navy recruitment ad ought to be.

Nothing Franco has done in movies has been as astounding as the James Dean he played on TNT, but at least here he's cheered up for the occasion. He plays Jake Huard, an amateur boxer toiling for his father at a Maryland shipyard but with dreams bigger than dock work. He promised his late mother that he'd get into the US Naval Academy. Jake is a long shot. His grades are lacking, for one thing. But after a few recruits don't pan out, he's included as a last-minute addition, and the fun gets underway.

Jake isn't enrolled for five minutes when he discovers that Ali (Jordana Brewster), the woman barking orders at him, is the same dame he just mistook for a hooker at his local watering hole. She'll be his commanding officer and, yes, eventually his girl. Not a minute later does Jake meet the big, bad Midshipman Lieutenant Cole (Tyrese Gibson).

Cole is part Apollo Creed and part Louis Gossett Jr. His job is to help weed out the sissies and corner-cutters, and his cruel approach really boils Jake's blood. But Jake is in a tough position. He's not pulling his weight with his group assignments and is too proud to ask for help. Cole knows it and makes him suffer.

Before Jake can say, ''You wanna take this outside," he gets wind of the Navy Brigade Championships, an amateur boxing tournament whose most fearsome competitor is the heavyweight Cole. Guess who starts eating candy bars on slices of Wonder Bread to qualify for Cole's weight class?

Directing ''Annapolis" is Justin Lin, whose previous feature was the irresponsible high-school comedy thriller ''Better Luck Tomorrow." This second movie is more his speed -- the moral standards, at least, seem handed down from the military. There are a few instructional scenes about Navy codes of behavior, but to write them off as mere advertising is unfair. Lin and the screenwriter Dave Collard take as little of this seriously as they can get away with.

That attitude turns problematic when more than one person in the movie breaks character. A suicide attempt is preposterous. So are the movie's locations. The shipyard looks fake, and, as it happens, I graduated from the Philadelphia private school the film uses for the real Naval Academy. It's an odd stand-in, but it's good to see the school is still ready for its close-ups.

While I could have lived with fewer generic training montages, ''Annapolis" is full of astonishingly human characters played by talented actors, namely Chi McBride as the weary Navy boxing coach and Vicellous Shannon as Jake's out-of-shape roommate and, later, his fight manager. Brewster is a pleasure to look at but often hard to hear.

The movie is recycled from parts of ''Top Gun" and ''An Officer and a Gentleman." But the patchwork is good for Franco's charisma -- it's a rare chance to see he has some. His depressive tendencies take a back seat to cornball romance and the occasional grin.

He's even up for would-be insults from Brewster. ''You hook like a girl," she says of his boxing. Is she kidding? Only if that girl is Hilary Swank.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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