While "Major Payne" is too predictable for most adults, it's an ideal entertainment for youthful audiences that allows Damon Wayans to be at his best in a dream part. In the title role, Wayans is a Marine so dedicated that "gung-ho" doesn't remotely begin to describe his zeal in the line of duty, a quality that Wayans and his co-writers happily push to comical extremes. Having distinguished himself in Iraq, Panama and Kuwait, the major has come to the end of the line.
In short order, the man hoping to find some line of work that make use of "my exemplary skills as a trained killer" winds up at Madison Academy commanding its junior ROTC misfits, who have been last-place finishers in the Virginia Junior Military Games eight years in a row. You scarcely need a crystal ball to figure out how things will turn out for Payne and his boys.
Although overly familiar, "Major Payne"--a reworking of the amusing 1955 "The Private War of Major Benson" starring Charlton Heston--does give Wayans a chance to stretch in a role that finds him adopting, to hilarious effect, the craziest folksy twang and quaint expressiveness imaginable.
Emotionally, Payne verges on the robotic, but he's canny and has an ultra-dry sense of humor. Trying her best to break through to the major both as a man and a teacher is the school's sensible counselor, played appealingly by lovely Karyn Parsons. The young actors cast as the students are similarly capable, and Steven Martini, in his film debut, is especially effective as one of the older students, troubled by a sneering alcoholic father (Michael Ironside). Orlando Brown is irresistible as the resilient Cadet Tiger; Parsons has to remind the major that Tiger is, after all, only 6 years old.
Directed with verve by Nick Castle, "Major Payne" is a handsome production, filmed almost entirely at the Miller School in Charlottesville, Va., which boasts a large and beautiful campus and a wonderful collection of fine old buildings.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some crude humor and behavior. Times guidelines: The film does have some coarse language, appropriate to the material, but no profanity; it's suitable for all ages.
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'Major Payne' Damon Wayans: Major Benson Winifred Payne Karyn Parsons: Dr. Emily Walburn Steven Martini: Cadet Alex Stone Orlando Brown: Cadet Tiger A Universal Pictures presentation of a Wife 'N' Kids production. Director Nick Castle. Producers Eric L. Gold, Michael Rachmil. Executive producers Damon Wayans, Harry Tatelman. Screenplay by Dean Lorey & Wayans and Gary Rosen; based on a story by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher and a screenplay by William Roberts and Richard Alan Simmons. Cinematographer Richard Bowen. Editor Patrick Kennedy. Costumes Jennifer L. Bryan. Music Craig Safan. Production designer Peter Larkin. Art director David Crank. Set decorator James V. Kent. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.