This comic romp has a serious subtext

Times Staff Writer

"National Security," a funny, raucous action comedy, effectively teams Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn in a film that's both laugh out loud funny and surprisingly subtle. Lawrence's Earl Montgomery is so overzealous an LAPD cadet that he gets drummed out of the police academy and then plays the race card so shamelessly that Zahn's Hank Rafferty, a dedicated cop, loses his badge and winds up serving six months in prison for police harassment.

Wouldn't you know it? Both end up as guards in the employ of the National Security Co. And can it come as a surprise that the two, albeit reluctantly, unite to go after a team of smugglers (headed by a silver-haired Eric Roberts)? As elementary and familiar as it is, this plot proves rock-solid sturdy for all that writers Jay Scherick and David Ronn have in mind. It allows for a series of amusingly outrageous action set pieces and also plenty of room for Lawrence's always-provocative freewheeling humor.

A moralist as well as a satirist who ultimately upholds the importance of fair play, Lawrence deftly skewers racism wherever he sees it, but in the hotheaded Earl he suggests that no-holds-barred exploitation of racial discrimination in instances where it does not actually exist can be in the end counterproductive.

In Earl and Hank's initial encounter by Echo Park Lake, Hank comes upon Earl trying to get in a car in which his keys are apparently locked. Earl instantly becomes paranoid and defensive, and while Hank may in fact be suspicious, he behaves in a professional manner. Then along comes a bee, which Hank tries to swat away from a terrified Earl. But from the perspective of a man, who happens to be Latino, with a camera in the park, it looks like Hank is beating Rodney King-style on Earl.

This sequence is as hilarious as it is wrenching, a gritty instance of things being not what they seem, and it is beautifully staged by director Dennis Dugan. Infuriated by being thrown out of the police academy, Earl unhesitatingly grabs the chance to send a white cop to the slammer, innocent though he may be.

The filmmakers shrewdly allow Earl to take his time deciding to make amends with Hank, which means that their teaming up to go after the bad guys has a distinct unease, punctuated by plenty of instances in which Hank, in comical fashion, struggles to control his wholly justified anger at the always obstreperous and taunting Earl.

All this plays as subtext and never mars the film's comic tone or interrupts the steady flow of knock-about, slam-bang action and inspired sequences of wild and woolly physical comedy. Although it's true that the violence quotient seems unnecessarily high, "National Security" is irrepressibly good-natured, a deftly paced and structured action comedy that makes imaginative use of local settings.


'National Security'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence, language and some sensuality.

Times guidelines: Considerable violence and mayhem, although it's all in a comic vein.

Martin Lawrence...Earl Montgomery

Steve Zahn...Hank Rafferty

Colm Feore...Detective Frank McDuff

Bill Duke...Lieutenant Washington

Eric Roberts...Nash

A Columbia Pictures presentation of an Outlaw/Intermedia/Firm Films production. Director Dennis Dugan. Producers Bobby Newmyer, Jeff Silver, Michael Green. Executive producers Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Martin Lawrence. Screenplay by Jay Scherick & David Ronn. Cinematographer Oliver Wood. Editor Debra Neil-Fisher. Music Randy Edelman. Costumes April Ferry. Production designer Larry Fulton. Art director Christa Munro. Set decorator Douglas Mowat. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

In general release.

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