Movie review, 'National Security'

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Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn play mismatched buddy-cops in "National Security," and jiving and snarling and trash-talking all over each other, they generate enough comic tension and mayhem to jump-start this mass of action-comedy cliches into a fairly amusing show.

It's nothing much, just another by-the-numbers genre movie that succeeds or fails on the chemistry of its stars. And there's just enough chemistry here. Lawrence's lazy-eyed, bad-boy agitation plays well against the tantrum-throwing, straight-arrow character Zahn creates, even though the movie's cookie-cutter script hardly deserves the skill and electricity they bring to it.

Perhaps it's a misnomer to call these characters cops; actually, they're a cop wannabe and an ex-cop looking for redemption and vengeance. Lawrence plays Earl Montgomery, a lippy egomaniac who got thrown out of the police academy for insubordination and blowing up a police car. Zahn (the lesser-known comedy scene-stealer of films like "Out of Sight" and "Happy, Texas") plays Hank Rafferty, a former LAPD guy busted from the force and thrown in jail for allegedly beating up Earl after mistaking him for a car thief in Echo Park.

The two cross paths again when both are hired as security guards for the company National Security, and they join forces - at first unwillingly - when they stumble on a smuggling ring run by slick blond mastermind Nash (played by Julia's gifted-but-wasted brother, Eric Roberts). The gang is already responsible for the killing of Hank's ex-partner, in the movie's first scene. Soon cars are crashing, cliches flying and guns blazing all over L.A. as the freelancing security guards go after the smuggling ring, in defiance of Hank's former LAPD superiors McDuff (Colm Feore) and Washington (Bill Duke).

Earl and Hank's road to interracial buddyhood isn't smooth. Obviously, Hank is burned at Earl; it was Earl's erroneous testimony that sent him to the slammer. But we know from the start that these two are going to bond, catch the crooks and survive every bloody gun battle and preposterous outrage the movie throws at them.

The only suspense in a movie like "National Security" comes from hoping desperately that Lawrence and Zahn won't run out of jokes before the hack screenwriting overwhelms them.

Luckily they don't. "National Security" is a bastard child of "Beverly Hills Cop," "Bad Boys" and dozens of other violent buddy-cop comedies probably dating back to 1972's "Freebie and the Bean," Richard Rush's slapstick version of "The French Connection." "National Security" writers Jay Scherick and David Ronn have absolutely nothing new on their minds. The movie's height of originality is achieved in the auto graveyard chase scene and a bad slapstick sequence involving a videotape of Hank thrashing at a bumblebee, with echoes of the Rodney King beating.

Director Dennis Dugan specializes in loud, obnoxious movie comedy. He's a moviemaker never daunted by bodily functions or stereotypes - or both at the same time. After apprenticing on TV's witty "Moonlighting" as actor and director, he's been responsible for nerve-grating comedies like "Problem Child," "Happy Gilmore" and "Big Daddy." But Dugan knows how to punch across this kind of crash-boom frenzy.

So does his main star. Lawrence, who is also an executive producer of "National Security," does another of his cocky wiseacre turns as Earl; he seems to be playing Eddie Murphy's lazy, big-mouthed nephew. But what makes this turn better than Lawrence's usual blowhard routines is the energy he gets from Zahn, which is considerable.

As the buzz-cut, short-fuse Hank - a funny caricature of the kind of L.A. cop who tries uneasily to straddle both worlds - Zahn plays the racial tension for all it's worth. (Hank even has a black girlfriend, played by Robinne Lee.) It's a different role than Zahn usually plays, and it demonstrates that he has a lot more strings to his bow than we may realize. With his trademark crud-eating grin and ingratiating whines, Zahn has seemed a master at impersonating lazy, slow, somewhat brain-scrambled substance abusers. Here, he's playing the kind of guy who would probably roust most of the drunks and druggies he plays in his other movies.

Making this movie together, Lawrence and Zahn demonstrate good taste in co-stars but dubious taste in scripts. "National Security" is the kind of movie you'd expect a couple of former New York commodities traders to write - which is what Scherick and Ronn were before escaping to the writing staff of "Spin City."

The actors save them, using their expert timing and flair to generate interest in scenes we've seen a dozen times before. I wouldn't race out to see "National Security," but it does give you exactly what you'd expect: yuks, explosions and brawling buddies rolling all over those overused L.A. freeways.

2 stars (out of 4) "National Security"
Directed by Dennis Dugan; written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn; photographed by Oliver Wood; edited by Debra Neil-Fisher; production designed by Larry Fulton; music by Randy Edelman; produced by Bobby Newmyer, Jeff Silver, Michael Green. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, Jan. 17. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, language and some sensuality).
Earl Montgomery - Martin Lawrence
Hank Rafferty - Steve Zahn
Det. McDuff - Colm Feore
Nash - Eric Roberts
Lt. Washington - Bill Duke Charlie Reed - Timothy Busfield

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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