When Martin Lawrence appeared on Conan O’Brien to promote his new movie, National Security, the interview focused on what you already know about Martin Lawrence. His ears stick out, he wears designer clothes, and he was in a coma three years ago. On the first point, Lawrence underlined that it has never affected his appeal for the ladies. On the last, he said he’s stopped smoking weed, because “It’s not for me.”
When the time came to talk about National Security, they showed the obligatory clip: Lawrence and co-star Steve Zahn appear on screen, playing L.A. cops. When they mistakenly allow a car thief to drive off in a rich lady’s Jaguar, Lawrence unveils his “backup plan”: he shoots the car until it blows up. The fiery explosion is vintage cop-buddy-action-comedy, all orange and big and exciting. In the foreground, Lawrence and Zahn jump and contort. The studio audience applauds on cue.
That’s about all you need to know about National Security. And, for that matter, Martin Lawrence’s career to date. From his minute in Do the Right Thing and long run on Martin to his be-sequeled buddydom with Will Smith to his $20,000,000 paycheck for the upcoming Blue Streak 2, Lawrence has made a fine living off his terrifically mobile features. His basic joke is always the same: he calls out racial injustice, even strikes an occasional aggressive pose, but remains resolutely nonthreatening (for a white audience who might otherwise take such scolding seriously), because his ears stick out and his face goes comically paroxysmal.
National Security allows for more of the same. Earl (Lawrence) is introduced trying to pass a series of L.A. police academy tests. When his enthusiastic displays of shooting, cart-wheeling, and driving go wrong and, most importantly, enrage his instructor, Earl’s escorted off the academy campus by a couple of burly uniforms. Mad at the bum-rush, he throws up his karate-choppy hands and makes faces: “I got skills, ya bitches!”
At that moment, Earl meets his white buddy-to-be. Hank (Zahn) has been established previously as Earl’s match — angry, traumatized (by the recent death of his partner [Timothy Busfield, on screen for about two minutes]), and spastic-faced. Hank catches Earl trying to get his keys out of his own car and mistakes him for a car thief. Their verbal exchange escalates to awkward wrestling, just as a “big-ass bumblebee” buzzes by. Being allergic, Earl panics, and when Hank swats at the bee with his stick, a helpful bystander videotapes them. The resulting “evidence” resembles the Rodney King beating. Hank is kicked off the force and sent to prison for 6 months. From now on, he holds a grudge against Earl, indicated by his permanent scrunch-face.
Long story (relatively) short: both Hank and Earl end up working as security guards, and both happen to be in the vicinity when Nash (Eric Roberts in tacky blond hair), the smuggler who killed Hank’s partner, strikes again. In order that the feuding buddies-to-be might join forces, Nash helpfully calls Earl a “monkey” (as in, “Somebody shoot that monkey!”). Now that the pursuit of justice is suitably “personal” for both partners, the movie can stumble on through to its end, one flamboyant car chase and bruising stunt after another.
National Security (written by the same team who brought you the woeful I Spy, Jay Scherick and David Ronn) endeavors to complicate the standard black-white buddy dynamic, or at least to draw attention to its conventions and presumptions. They exchange witty dialogue (Hank: “Do you know how to hotwire a car?” Earl: “Why? Because I’m black?”), bond as they spend seriously smelly time on a garbage barge, and suffer repeated beat downs by the bad guys. As always in interracial buddy films, such moments lead to eventual mutual understanding, not to mention supposedly riotous physical abuses. And, true to formula, they must decide which of their cop superiors — Detective McDuff (Colm Feore) or Lieutenant Washington (Bill Duke) — is the villain. Gee, do you think they’ll figure it out in time?
Once they’re on the run from the cops as well as the smugglers, the buddies find they only have one another as confidants. This leads to one of those stock stakeout rooftop conversations where one partner confesses his troubles and the other commiserates, while a plinky guitar sounds in the background. Poor Hank. Not only has the bumblebee encounter cost him his job and 6 months of his life, he’s also lost his girlfriend, Denise (Robinne Lee), who, because she’s black, can’t accept that he’s beaten a black man. Earl is aghast at such suffering: “You know what you are Hank?” he observes by way of consolation. “You’re a black man.”
It’s a good line, especially when you’re looking at Steve Zahn’s exceedingly pale face, which is, for a minute, relaxing its scrunch in recognition of this new brotherhood. That is, while it’s a ridiculous thing for Earl to say, it’s also an effective ground for these guys to bond — to see themselves as alike, mirrored in their equal oppression, depression, abandonment, and hopelessness. The difference between them is this: Earl is used to being a black man, and so he expects the world of hurt it entails. For Hank, it’s a novel and devastating experience, simultaneously exciting (buddy Earl has finally accepted him) and horrifying (what if he has to face these obstacles forever?). It’s hard to be a black man, especially when you’re white.