National Security

(2003) * Pg-13
90 min. Columbia. Director: Dennis Dugan. Cast: Martin Lawrence, Steve Zahn, Colm Feore, Bill Duke, Eric Roberts.

National Security is a soul-crushing invariant on the black-white buddy-cop movie. Even the nominally stimulating effects--Martin Lawrence, Steve Zahn, and lots of improbably leaping vehicles--fail to wring any worth out of a crass, cartoony approach to deeply contrived situations.

Lawrence plays Earl Montgomery, an LAPD cadet whose apparent clinical insanity precludes him from public service. Instead, Earl finds himself--no less cockily--working a security guard beat. Zahn plays Hank Rafferty, a disgraced former cop jailed for assaulting Montgomery. Though it was all a misunderstanding (perpetuated by Montgomery), Hank risks actually losing it and attacking Earl when he goes to work for "National Security." Because, you see, when Hank tenaciously goes after the smugglers who killed his partner, Earl's on the scene, and Hank must reluctantly accept a new partner. The McGuffin--believe it or not--is a beer keg made out of a super-alloy. Okay, guys, now we're laughing at you, not with you.

Director Dennis Dugan parades an awful lot of talent before the lens. Eric Roberts, we expect. But Colm Feore, Timothy Busfield, even Joe Flaherty shouldn't be hard up enough to slum it in this garbage. Primarily, of course, National Security wastes the talents of Lawrence and Zahn, both funny performers. Lawrence--who's also credited as an executive producer--seems to have permanently settled for doing all of the work for witless scripts, so we get some spontaneous moments (of the sharp-tongued and buffoonish varieties) and creative comic posing but considerably more pained overplaying. Zahn continues to be the best thing about bad movies, made up like a tightly-wound caricature of Nicholson's crew-cutted, mustached cop from The Pledge.

Beyond that, it's all ineptitude. Dugan, also known as an actor, has directed seven features, by now. And yet, National Security is lazy, ugly, amateurish, and contemptible. The action sequences are, conservatively, 85% slo-mo, and the interiors are shot in a series of flat close-ups. Worse, the script runs on racist fumes, trading on inherently unfunny stereotypes (Lawrence's dimwitted, "victim complex" motormouth and a slappin', big momma), racial tensions (embodied in the Rodney King-style apparent beating), and cruelties (like Zahn's painful false imprisonment) to drum up laughs. Adding insult to injury, a shootout in a bottling plant depicts walls of Coca-Cola logos behind the heroes.

Occasionally, National Security bumbles a genuinely funny idea, like a poorly executed sequence involving the two steering wheels of a driver's ed. vehicle. Mostly, though, the movie is a numbing collection of set-ups with the odd fireball or flipping car, amounting to nothing more than a rote buddy-movie tension/release.

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