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Dustin Putman

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National Security (2003)
1 Star

Directed by Dennis Dugan
Cast: Steve Zahn, Martin Lawrence, Colm Feore, Bill Duke, Eric Roberts, Timothy Busfield, Robinne Lee, Brett Cullen, Mari Morrow, Cleo King
2003 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, language, and some sensuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 18, 2003.

"National Security" is living proof why January is often called a movie graveyard—the month where a studio's weakest movies are unceremoniously dumped for a lack of either commercial viability or quality. Directed by Dennis Dugan (2001's "Saving Silverman"), "National Security" may at first glance look like nothing more than another harmless formula buddy action-comedy, but it isn't. Within the first ten minutes, it becomes readily apparent that it has a none-too-subtle racist agenda that is thoroughly unfunny and repellent.

First, the disposable plot. Hank (Steve Zahn) is a cop mourning the untimely death of his partner, who was shot in the line of duty. Earl (Martin Lawrence) is a would-be LAPD recruit kicked off the training program because of his antisocial behavior. When Hank mistakenly thinks that Earl is trying to break into a car and threatens to arrest him, a scuffle ensues. Unfortunately, from the bad angle that the incident was caught on camera, it looks as if Hank was beating Earl up, when in actuality he was only trying to swat a bumblebee that had begun to attack the allergic Earl. Taking advantage of the racially charged incident, Earl insists he was, indeed, beat up, leading to Hank's revoked police badge and a six-month jail sentence.

Once Hank is released, he promptly gets a job as a security guard in hopes of getting his life straightened out. What he doesn't realize is that Earl has also gotten a job from the same employer. When a smuggling ring secretly working in the area is detected, Earl and Hank become unlikely partners in trying to catch the criminals.

This premise, while worn-out and mostly uninteresting, would have been all well and good on its own. Instead, the screenwriting team who brought the unsuspecting public 2002's "I Spy," Jay Scherick and David Ronn, with generous help from Martin Lawrence's ad-libbing, have joined forces to make a sickening 90-minute diatribe against white people. Lawrence (2000's "Big Momma's House") can be funny under the right circumstances, but here he is merely offensive, with nearly every line he utters exposing his narrow-minded racism.

Making a statement about race relations can be smartly used as the source of comedy (2002's "Undercover Brother" being a prime recent example), but there is no point behind it and no statement to be made here. Earl is such a crass, meanspirited, lying idiot that it comes as laughable that the viewer is supposed to root for him. Tellingly, as he hung from a seaside cliff in the climax, the only thing running through my mind was that the world would be better off if he fell to his death. I doubt this was the intention of the filmmakers, but their carelessness in bringing this morally repugnant character to the screen has managed just that.

The only actor who escapes with most of their dignity is Steve Zahn (2001's "Joy Ride"), as the put-upon Hank. While Zahn has been offered nothing witty to say in the screenplay, he still has created a sympathetic character. We, as the viewers, feel sorry for him when he unjustly loses his job and girlfriend, and then feel even more sorry for him when he is forced to put up with Earl, who is the apathetic source of his problems.

"National Security" isn't just a poor man's version of "48 Hours" or "Rush Hour," but an unbearable experience that fails to generate a single solid laugh throughout. The sporadic action setpieces are more tolerable, but strictly of the "been-there-done-that" variety. More than anything, though, "National Security" is repulsive in its misguided double standards. Had the roles been reversed, and the white Hank been the racist one, you can bet people would riot the theaters. Since it is the African-American Earl, however, who has something against Caucasians, it is widely accepted as just a silly comedy. "National Security" is one, big, hypocritical "fuck you" to everyone.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman