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Originally published Friday, September 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

A barely passing grade for "Underclassman"

Watching rising young African-American star Nick Cannon play "Underclassman's" fast-talking, renegade detective in the tradition of Eddie...

Special to The Seattle Times

Watching rising young African-American star Nick Cannon play "Underclassman's" fast-talking, renegade detective in the tradition of Eddie Murphy in "Beverly Hills Cop" and Chris Tucker in "Rush Hour" is like chugging along I-5 in something with a lawn-mower engine after driving a Porsche.

It's not that the former sketch-comedy player and star of "Drumline" isn't appealing. He's quite likable and funny as Tre Stokes, a loose cannon of an L.A. cop, a motormouth huckster with grand ambitions to be a maverick detective like his late father.

But nothing about Cannon suggests the grown-up hubris and danger that makes such a familiar character worth watching. The stale action sequence that opens "Underclassman" finds Tre, sans backup, trying to make the best of a bust that's gone wrong: improvising his way through a chase sequence that ends, predictably, with smashed vendor carts, terrified pedestrians, overturned vehicles and general mayhem. A sheepish Tre gets a dressing-down back at the station house from his boss, Capt. Delgado (Cheech Marin).

Movie review 2 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Underclassman," with Nick Cannon, Shawn Ashmore, Kelly Hu, Hugh Bonneville, Cheech Marin. Directed by Marcos Siega, from a screenplay by David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg. 96 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, mild sexual references, teen drinking and drug references. Several theaters.

Tre's misfortune and penchant for trying to con and charm his way out of trouble make passable entertainment. But contrast his boyish docility and hucksterism with Murphy's dark mirth and gonzo police tactics in "Beverly Hills Cop" or Tucker's self-satisfied dance step after blowing away bad guys in "Rush Hour," and Cannon's heroic charisma is found wanting.

Cannon's a better fit as a faux adolescent, however. When the murder of a young journalist prompts a hush-hush police investigation at an exclusive, private high school, Tre hustles his way into the role of undercover sleuth posing as a mid-term senior.

A frustrated Delgado — who never much cared for the elder Stokes' flashy disregard for procedure and likes it even less in rookie Tre — reluctantly agrees to the assignment. From this point, "Underclassman" becomes a truly slap-dash affair, a monotonous series of sports challenges and fish-out-of-water scenes as Tre tries to fit into a classroom culture and a primarily white, upper-crust tribal hierarchy ruled by an arrogant chieftain played by Shawn Ashmore. (Ashmore is one of two graduates of "X-Men 2" in this film; the other is Kelly Hu, wasted as Tre's police contact).

Hu, Marin and a very fine British actor, Hugh Bonneville ("Iris") playing the school's headmaster, bring some desperately needed authenticity and texture to this Miramax film, one of many that has been sitting on the studio's shelves but are being dumped into theaters now that former Miramax heads Harvey and Bob Weinstein have hit the road.

Tom Keogh:

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