"National Security" comes off as a retro reprise of those slam-bang, buddy-buddy action-comedies that proliferated throughout the '80s in the wake of "48 HRS." Disposable popcorn flick may generate respectable B.O. But the big bucks won't start flowing until this frantic trifle about bickering rent-a-cops transfers to homevid precincts.

The mayhem is relatively bloodless, despite the frequent firing of automatic weapons, and language remains just within the limits of PG-13 respectability. Even so, “National Security” comes off as a retro reprise of those slam-bang, buddy-buddy action-comedies that proliferated throughout the ’80s in the wake of “48 HRS.” Disposable popcorn flick may generate respectable B.O. thanks to recent dearth of similar product. But the big bucks won’t start flowing into Columbia coffers until this frantic trifle about bickering rent-a-cops transfers to homevid precincts.

Clicking on all cylinders in his best role since “Nothing to Lose,” Martin Lawrence propels pic with feisty portrayal of Earl Montgomery, a hard-charging wannabe cop who’s tossed out of the L.A. police academy after causing too much collateral damage during a training exercise. Still smarting from his ignominious expulsion, Earl’s temperature rises when he finds himself locked out of his car. And he explodes into a bellicose outburst when he’s interrupted by patrol cop Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn), who’s understandably suspicious when he sees Earl trying to retrieve his car keys through the vehicle’s half-open window.

Hank has an even better reason for free-floating fury — he saw his longtime partner fatally shot when they responded to a storage-warehouse robbery — but he refrains from using excessive force. Unfortunately, while subduing the suspect and simultaneously swatting a troublesome bee, Hank looks like he’s brutally beating Earl. Even more unfortunately, the encounter is caught on videotape. Disavowed by his politically conscious superiors, Hank is dismissed from the force and — thanks largely to Earl’s false testimony — sent to prison.

Six months later, Hank gets out and is forced to find employment as a security guard. While responding to a robbery, he fortuitously finds robbers working with the same bad guy (a garishly peroxided Eric Roberts) who killed his partner. Trouble is, he also finds Earl, who’s also working as a security guard. When the bad guys escape, Earl more or less blackmails Rafferty into a marriage of convenience; the would-be cop wants to impress LAPD recruiters by finding and arresting the homicidal robbers, while the disgraced ex-cop reluctantly agrees to help, to redeem himself — and, of course, to avenge his partner’s death.

Some auds may be irretrievably turned off by the very idea that police brutality would be treated as a joke, and that a shamelessly conniving black man might — as part of that joke — falsely accuse a white cop of such vicious behavior. As if to fan the flames of outrage, “National Security” uses as a running gag Earl’s frequent and mostly self-serving complaints about real or perceived racism.

It probably won’t mollify the P.C. crowd that Lawrence is unabashedly hilarious as Earl repeatedly plays the race card for his own benefit. But funny is funny, and Lawrence’s wounded-innocent/empowered-upstart rants — well played against Zahn’s richly comic slow burns — are, hands down, the funniest bits in the pic.

Lawrence and Zahn are able to develop such a prickly and edgy give-and-take largely because, for most of pic’s first half, their characters aren’t merely antagonistic, they downright hate each other. Hank isn’t a racist, but that doesn’t matter: He spent six months behind bars — and, not incidentally, lost his African-American girlfriend (Robinne Lee) — because Earl effectively painted him as one. Little wonder, then, that mutual trust and budding friendship take a lot longer to develop here than is customary in most mixed-combo pics.

Except for the nifty chemistry generated by Lawrence and Zahn, “National Security” is a doggedly nondescript piece of work. Scripters Jay Scherick and David Ronn borrow freely from other action-comedies, giving pic the bland flavor of reheated leftovers. While zipping from scene to scene with little regard for continuity or probability, helmer Dennis Dugan resorts to dated-looking action-comedy visuals, including lots of slo-mo during shootouts.

Supporting players — including Bill Duke as a taciturn police lieutenant — go through the motions for easy paychecks. Music score abounds in high-decibel hip-hop. Other tech credits are passable.

National Security

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of an Outlaw/Intermedia/Firm Films production. Produced by Bobby Newmyer, Jeff Silver, Michael Green. Executive producers, Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Martin Lawrence. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Screenplay, Jay Scherick, David Ronn.

Crew

Camera (color), Oliver Wood; editor, Debra Neil-Fisher; music, Randy Edelman; music supervisors, Michelle Kuznetsky, Mary Ramos; production designer, Larry Fulton; art director, Christa Munro; set decorator, Douglas Mowat; costume designer, April Ferry; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Joseph Geisinger; assistant director, Bruce Franklin; casting, Mary Vernieu, Anne McCarthy, Felicia Fasano. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace, Houston, Jan. 14, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Earl Montgomery - Martin Lawrence Hank Rafferty - Steve Zahn Det. Frank McDuff - Colm Feore Lt. Washington - Bill Duke Nash - Eric Roberts Charlie Reed - Timothy Busfield Denise - Robinne Lee Robert Barton - Matt McCoy Heston - Brett Cullen Woman in Car - Cleo King Billy Narthax - Stephen Tobolowsky Owen Fergus - Joe Flaherty
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