“You go, boy!” Martin Lawrence’s signature punchline is all about survival. Typically delivered with exuberance and not a little self-satisfaction, the line reflects his thrill at getting over. It reflects his fans’ thrill as well: they’re happy to see their boy survive and, even better, succeed. Kooky and canny, adorable and rude, always trying so hard to get over, Martin Lawrence inspires much love.
So it was a little unnerving to hear just a week before Lawrence’s latest major studio release, Blue Streak, was set to open that he had collapsed into a coma while jogging in LA during a monster heat wave. At first glance, the episode seemed another instance of Lawrence’s infamous lack of moderation (and was reported as such on TV tabloid shows): it was another stupid move by Lawrence, who was picked up last year by L.A. cops, while carrying drugs and a gun. At the same time, though, the collapse confirmed exactly the characteristics that make Lawrence so popular: he’s demented, dedicated, eager to please, even cocky. Put another way, as I heard several times during a screening of Blue Streak, “That nigga’s crazy!.”
Apparently, Martin Lawrence’s fans appreciate his mania. And he works hard to deliver it to them, in a package that repays their faith in him. (The day after he was out of the hospital, Lawrence was on tv and radio talk shows to promote the film.) He’s been refining the “Martin” character for years, in his stand-up routines, films (especially A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Bad Boys, Nothing to Lose, and Life) and five years on the sitcom Martin. It’s a clever concept, this character, defined by contradictions that can appeal to most anybody. He’s part Lucille Ball and part Eddie Murphy, slapsticky and sly, audacious and naive, generous and self-absorbed. He might act like an asshole but most of the time, he means well.
To be sure, Lawrence has developed the character in response to a particular context. Martin is a black man trying to survive in a screwed-up, white-dominated world. Women perplex him, sports excite him, his friends inspire and alarm him. That he never quite figures out the system, or his place in it, makes the joke ongoing. Martin feels frustrated and rebellious, he looks goofy with those big ears that he likes to ridicule. Perhaps because he seems like regular people not especially brilliant or glamorous or hooked up he’s become the kind of celebrity who’s adored despite and for his extreme behavior.
When Tisha Campbell, his longtime Martin co-star, left the show and then sued for sexual harassment on the set, Lawrence’s audience was willing to forgive him and/or blame her. The character prepared the way for this response: Martin was and is a screw-up Whatever his public troubles, people seem able to excuse his “bad judgments” and laud his notorious nerve and insanity. He parties hard, he acts stupid, but he’s never done anything so nutty as to give a transvestite prostitute a ride home.
Now that the series is canceled and the lawsuit is mostly forgotten, Lawrence’s movie career seems poised to take off. However, it’s not likely to do that with the retread cop movie Blue Streak. As retreads go, this one isn’t terrible, but it is obvious and predictable. The screenplay is attributed to the team of Michael Berry & John Blumenthal and then to Steve Carpenter (such serial credits rarely bode well) and it situates Lawrence right in the middle of Eddie Murphy’s parts in his 80s-heyday films, Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours.
As Miles Logan, Lawrence plays a jewel thief pretending to be a cop. He goes at it with a maniacal energy, as he goes at most things. He does what he does best: he mugs, cavorts, and incites mayhem, while the white guys (and there are lots of them at the cop station) look on in disbelief and awe. They want to give him commendations. They think he’s a brilliant police strategist, but really, he’s just deploying those skills that seem second nature to black comedians in movies: he schemes, steals shit, and talks real fast.
Directed by Les Mayfield (Encino Man and Flubber), Blue Streak is slack when it comes to coherence and character development. The awkward set up is this: during a heist, Miles is betrayed by one of his partners, Deacon (Peter Greene, sinister as ever) and busted by the cops. Before he’s arrested, Miles hides the whopping big diamond he’s just stolen in a heating vent in an unfinished building. Two years later, Miles gets out of jail and discovers that the unfinished building has become an LAPD station. He does the logical thing of course, what any black man would do in such a situation: he poses as an L.A. detective.
Once he finds his way inside, Miles has to contend with a technologically sophisticated squad room full of white detectives who think he’s the shit. They’re awed by his insights into burglary and his blatant distaste for both feds and crooks: he sasses the former and slams the heads of the latter into walls during interrogations. He’s apparently absorbed these definitively cool cop techniques from his own encounters with them. Or maybe he’s seen the same Eddie Murphy movies the rest of us have seen (at one point he literally hangs off a van’s back door as it speeds down the highway, just like Axel Foley). Miles’ most supportive colleagues (played by Luke Wilson and the splendid William Forsythe) take up where Judge Reinhold and Nick Nolte (Murphy’s partners) left off: sometimes they try to helpwith arrests, but mostly they just stay out of his way and marvel at his mastery of all situations.
Miles is caught between a rock and a hard place here: while he knows how to be mean and violent because he’s a black urban male criminal, he’s most mean and violent when acting like a cop (because the LAPD is corrupt by definition). Egged on by his new buddies, Miles assaults criminals with precise, ferocious violence (all in good fun, of course). Because he’s surrounded by foils the dumb cops, the fiendish Deacon, and his comically cowardly homeboy Tulley (Dave Chappelle) Miles looks relatively sympathetic even when he’s brutalizing someone.
The hitch is that the most extensive violence and the most overtly comic violence is carried out against Tulley. This means that as the white cops look on from across an alley, from behind the interrogation room two-way mirror Miles hits, kicks, and grinds his friend into silence concerning his secret, real identity. A black woman DA observes that this battering is illegal, but she’s dismissed by the men as girly and naive.
It might be that the DA’s response is pre-emptive: see, the film realizes the violence, however comic, is excessive or mean. You can’t really complain because the movie includes its own critique. This technique doesn’t really allow the film to rise above its generic conventions, however: Miles is a cop or a criminal, he’s silly or serious, he’s resisting or conforming. Whatever way you read him, he remains Martin, lovable because everyone around him is less so, funny because aside from Chappelle there’s not a soul on screen who can keep up with him. Martin fans don’t go to a Martin Lawrence movie to see him develop or be righteous. They’re not looking for him to stretch or change. They want to see him make faces and whine, mess with authorities, prevail when all odds are against him. They love him for surviving.