National Security (2003)

“All my life, I wanted to be a cop,” says Earl (Martin Lawrence), in the alternate last scene of National Security, offered on the Columbia DVD. Although he recognizes the “honor” of being asked to join the LAPD, he’s also aware of the politics here — that the induction is only a PR move by the department, following his flamboyant takedown of a big deal villain. “I realize,” he continues, “that my highly advanced skills could not properly flourish in the confines of this archaic system.”

And voila, he offers up the alternative, the cleverly named Maximum Security, a new “law enforcement organization which will eventually replace the current police structure.” He means to manage this company with the help of his partner, terminally white guy Hank (Steve Zahn). By the way, he tells Hank, he’ll have to say he’s Hank Longfeather, “a full-blooded Comanche,” in order to fit the minority status under which he’s established their new business venture.

This (original, pre-test screening) scene changes up the theatrical ending significantly — in its refusal to be cops, to be part of a perennially repressive system. The scene also speaks to what’s most right about 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 resistance to business as usual. 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. As director Dennis Dugan says on the DVD commentary track, Martin Lawrence is not only terrifically funny and a good actor, but also an incredible improviser (“the comedy wild car”; see the interrogation scene, improvised on the DVD). “If you’re directing Martin Lawrence,” he laughs, “the good thing to do is get out of the way and just let him go.”

Earl 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 (when he reacts to his trainer calling him “boy”), 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 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. During his trial, Hank tries to narrate the scene for a black jury: “I’m swatting at it with my stick. There I am, stomping on it with the heel of my boot. Kept missing it.” Meanwhile, Earl testifies that he’s been abused by the officer. Hank is summarily kicked off the force and sent to prison for 6 months, where he’s beaten daily by black and Hispanic inmates who hear he’s “that white cop [who] beat up the black guy.” 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 Eddie Murphy version of 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.