Note: This review was written for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting.
Obnoxious, racially charged odd-couple action-comedy pairing a put-upon white ex-cop (Steve Zahn) with the churlish, chronically offended black security guard (Martin Lawrence) who got him fired and imprisoned on false charges of police brutality. As directed by Dennis Dugan, the film plays Lawrence’s racist rants for laughs, while potential sympathy for white men or cops getting a raw deal is mitigated by making the villain a corrupt white police lieutenant. Racist stereotyping, frequent action violence, a sexually suggestive scene, some crass expressions, minimal profanity, and an instance of rough language. O — morally offensive. (PG-13) 2002
Martin Lawrence rants endlessly against the White Man and Steve Zahn tries to endure him in the obnoxious odd-couple action-comedy National Security (Columbia), directed by Dennis Dugan.
When Earl Montgomery (Lawrence) and Hank Rafferty (Zahn) first meet, neither is in a good mood. Hank is a cop whose partner was recently killed investigating a warehouse break-in, while Earl has just been thrown out of the police academy program after recklessly destroying a police cruiser and displaying nothing but insolence toward authority.
When Hank comes across Earl struggling to reach his car keys through a partially closed window, his initial response to this potentially suspicious scene is brusque but professional. Earl, however, is immediately abusive and defiant, escalating the situation to a minor struggle.
Unfortunately, as videotaped by a passerby, the confrontation looks suspiciously like police brutality — especially when a bee bumbles into the scene, leading the highly allergic Earl to drop thrashing onto the ground while Hank wildly swings his billy club at the bee and tries to stomp it to death.
At the trial, Earl falsely testifies against Hank, playing the victim to the sympathetic all-black jury. While Earl’s persecution-complex paranoia is so profound that he may actually believe that he was the victim of excessive force, he unambiguously perjures himself regarding the role of the bee in order to shaft Hank.
Although previously Earl had told police about the bee, Hank is somehow unable to establish the basic facts in court. Found guilty, Hank is sentenced to six months in prison, where he must assault guards and incur solitary confinement simply to survive the wrath of the black prisoners.
Six months later, back on the street, he takes a job as a security guard while working on his own to find his partner’s killer. His efforts lead him to another warehouse theft, where he is stunned to run across Earl, also working as a security guard. The bad guys flee, leading to a high-speed chase that ends with both Hank and Earl in police custody.
Maddeningly, despite the fact that the interrogating officer — a black lieutenant (Bill Duke) who is one of Hank’s former colleagues — personally heard Earl’s original admission about the bee and knows how unreliable he is, Hank is treated as a liar and a criminal who is stalking Earl, while Earl is again treated as a victim. Earl, meanwhile, is tickled by the notion of again falsely testifying against Hank and sending him back to prison, but relents after extorting an “apology” from Hank for the original “beating.”
Never in the whole movie does Earl apologize to Hank for any of this, or undo any of the damage he has done in Hank’s life. Earl never even acknowledges that he lied at Hank’s trial; he consistently maintains his delusional conviction that he really was beaten. Nor does he get any comeuppance for his behavior; instead, the movie winks at his outrageousness and rewards his brashness. For example, the film demeans its entire female contingent by having every single woman respond to Earl’s dubious charms.
Over time, Earl does come to sympathize with Hank, especially when he realizes that Hank’s conviction cost him not only his job and his freedom but his girlfriend as well. Yet even then, instead of apologizing, Earl says sympathetically, “You know what you are, Hank? You’re a black man.”
One of Earl’s lowest moments comes after offering to help Hank win back his ex-girlfriend by backing up Hank’s contention that there was no beating — though to Hank Earl maintains that this will really be a “lie.” When the moment actually comes, Earl reneges upon discovering that Hank’s ex-girlfriend is a beautiful black woman. His unapologetic explanation: He’s against interracial romance — that is, when it’s the man who is white.
Besides the film’s other problems, there are huge plot holes (such as how the protagonists, who are wanted by police, get a van loaded with stolen goods off a garbage scow without being caught). And the denouement is unnecessarily extended by an overlong shootout action sequence culminating in an unabashed revenge-driven climax.
Earl’s endless racist rants and insolence toward authority, being played for laughs, are generally more tasteless than offensive, especially since he himself admits in one scene that even he doesn’t necessarily believe everything he says.
Yet the movie plainly expects the audience to enjoy the prospect of a beleaguered white man suffering at the hands of a smug, self-righteous black man who never owns up to what he’s done, never gets his comeuppance, and is rewarded in the end with a badge. To top it off, any potential sympathy for innocent white men or cops getting a raw deal is offset by introducing a corrupt white police lieutenant as the villain.
Because of racist stereotyping, frequent action violence, a sexually suggestive scene, some crass expressions, minimal profanity, and an instance of rough language, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (2002)
Copyright © 2003 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Used by permission
2003, Columbia. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Martin Lawrence, Steve Zahn, Colm Feore, Eric Roberts, Bill Duke.
US Conference of Catholic Bishops: O, Morally Offensive
Racist stereotyping, frequent action violence, a sexually suggestive scene, some crass expressions, minimal profanity, and an instance of rough language.
Overall Recommendability: F (Unacceptable)
Artistic & Entertainment Value: 1 ½ stars (out of four) – Between Weak and Mediocre
Moral and Spiritual Value: Between Problematic and Poison
Appropriate Audience: Adults
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Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.
(c) 2002 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.