Underclassman and A Sound of Thunder (review)

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Off the Shelf

I was stunned to learn, after I’d seen the film, that The Great Raid had been sitting on a shelf at Miramax for a couple of years, wallowing in that movie purgatory that may be a level of Hollywood Hades higher than “development hell,” but still, it’s not a pleasant place to be: When a studio declines to release a completed film, that’s the honchos saying that they don’t want to throw good money after bad, that they believe that despite an already enormous investment in the production of the film, it’s still not worth the additional dough to promote it, create a couple thousand prints, and ship those prints out to theaters around the country. (One might imagine that experienced corporate executives would presumably know their own business well enough that they could tell before a film went into production that the combination of a crappy script, a lousy director, and an untalented cast might possibly result in an unreleasable film, but that’s another issue entirely.)
Miramax may have been correct to withhold The Great Raid, because it’s done poorly at the box office since its release a few weeks ago, though we’ll never know whether that’s a result of anemic promotion. (I think it’s quite a good film, but then, my tastes are frequently at odds with those of the general moviegoing public.) But there’s something of a fire sale going on at Miramax right now, as the famous (or infamous) Weinstein brothers exit and corporate overlord Disney wipes their slate clean before the new folks take over. And so Underclassman, a Weinstein project that has been sitting on a shelf for two years, is quietly inflicted upon us, ignominiously dropped into the entertainment no-man’s-land of Labor Day weekend. This preposterous flick is an excellent example of the “don’t studio execs know their own business?” mystery: Who the hell is Nick Cannon, and how does he get money to write, produce, and star in a movie that’s all about how hilarious he is? This is a particular puzzle because he is not funny in the least. This absurd cop “comedy” is a low-rent remounting of Beverly Hills Cop with a star who shouldn’t even be permitted to let his gaze alight upon Eddie Murphy, never mind attempt to fill his shoes.

Cannon (Shall We Dance?) plays Tracy Stokes, the world’s most inept cop, who is assigned to go undercover at a high school — shades of 21 Jump Street… very dim and dismal shades — where something or other Very Bad is going on. All the other students there, like Varsity King Shawn Ashmore (X2: X-Men United), look like they’ve been able to drink legally for years, so Cannon fits right in, even to the point of being able to hit on the impossibly hot Spanish teacher (Roselyn Sanchez) without her going, “Ewww, you’re supposed to be, like, 17, plus you’re the charisma-bereft Nick Cannon!” But this is what happens when you give someone like Cannon (who is he, again?) millions of dollars and let him masturbate on film.

The less than rockbottom rating I’m grudgingly conceding to this flick are out of pure pity for Ashmore; Sanchez; Colin Firth-alike Hugh Bonneville (Stage Beauty), who plays the high-school headmaster; and poor, poor Cheech Marin (Christmas with the Kranks), who plays Cannon’s police captain. They all deserve much, much better than this.

And as if this were not insult enough, we also have A Sound of Thunder, also surreptitiously slipped into theaters over the holiday weekend, which has been on a shelf at Warner Bros. for three — count ’em — years. Hilariously, the word is that the delay in releasing this film — the three-year delay — was so that director Peter Hyams (who made the dreadful The Musketeer) could tweak the FX. This you will find especially hilarious should you accidentally happen to see a few minutes of this flick, because it is chock full of the worst CGI you’ve ever seen. Bad enough that it’s so cartoony that Bugs Bunny would roll his eyes, but Hyams has his actors very plainly walking in place along a fake futuristic Chicago sidewalk; also, he swipes the Johnny Cabs from Total Recall (oh, the affrontery!). It’s impossible to imagine what the FX were like before the tweaking.

Thunder is based on a Ray Bradbury story — and we can only hope he somehow has no idea this is the case — about a group of adventurers from the year 2055 on a time safari to the Cretaceous to bag a dinosaur who inadvertently change the future; it’s the whole butterfly-effect thing: that is, tiny changes have drastic effects over the long run. It’s one of the tropes of time-travel science fiction, and rarely has it been as badly bungled as it is here; this is worse even that the horrendous Ashton Kutcher flick (and you know Warner Bros. is pissed they couldn’t use that title because Kutcher hogged it for his own crappy movie). Chaos theory is the perfect way to explain the existence of this awful, awful movie — a Hollywood exec flapping his lips at Ivy, et cetera — which is so breathlessly nonsensical that you almost have to admire its willingness to be completely and utterly detached not just from reality but from simple storytelling coherence.

Or you could just laugh at it: at the ridiculous expository dialogue, at the idea that the year 2055 has seen the development of takeout plant fertilizer delivered directly to your door, at the Department of Temporal Regulation agents with their navy-blue windbreakers with “DTR” on the back, at how folks in Chicago have organized themselves within a day — or 36 hours at the most — into Mad Max/The Postman postapocalyptic survival communities after the “time waves” from the changed past start affecting the present, at the psychotic meltdown of the career of Ben Kingsley (Suspect Zero, Thunderbirds) as the Evil CEO, at the tortured rationalizations actors like Ed Burns (Sidewalks of New York, 15 Minutes) and Catherine McCormack (Shadow of the Vampire, Dangerous Beauty) — no deathless talents, but perfectly fine within their own niches — must have put themselves through in order to sign contracts to appear in nuclear waste like this. “It wasn’t a butterfly you stepped on — it was evolution,” Burns is forced to say at one particularly ignominious point. Intelligently designed A Sound of Thunder isn’t.

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for violence, sexual references, drug material and some teen drinking
official site | IMDB

A Sound of Thunder
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
official site | IMDB

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