The private war of Maj. Benson Payne (Damon Wayans) is that he’s a modern-day military anachronism. A natural born killing machine, his pleasure in an era bereft of enemies is a pain to the Marine Corps.
“Major Payne,” the movie, is also a bit of a throwback. It’s what is sometimes called a “warmedy,” a cuddly comedy in which a crotchety hero sees the light by rubbing shoulders with humanity. It’s relatively foolproof light entertainment, undone only when it strays too far into the absurd or wears the mantle of Wayans’ comedy persona.
As such, pic is decent programmer fare with family appeal. Domestic theatrical prospects are good, with an upbeat back end in video and cable.
Having done too good a job in making the world safe for democracy and deemed unsuitable for a tour of duty behind a desk, Payne is thrust into civilian life. His combat-zone mentality clashes with polite society. But an old colleague finally steps forward with an offer to command some raw recruits — who happen to be aged 6 to 16.
Unlike its movie inspiration — 1955-vintage “The Private War of Major Benson ,” with Charlton Heston — the new outing presents Payne as a naif, seemingly unaware of a world that includes children, ROTC or virtually anything unrelated to mortal combat. Discipline, duty and honor form his code of honor, and those who bridle at its dictums are summarily punished.
The clash of hard-nosed Marine training and youthful antics are the grist of the film’s comedy. Each has its place, but even Payne discovers that his steely stance can be dented by a smile from a cute, pint-sized cadet. Ultimately, both sides bend in order to effect a strong showing in the annual Virginia ROTC games.
Wayans remains an odd choice for family-film stardom. His rude brand of humor is largely muted here, and when he slyly reveals it, the effect is jarring. Also grating is his choice to sport several gold teeth and assume an awkward pose that strains at the credulity of his romance with a school doctor (Karyn Parsons).
His bad-news troopers acquit themselves well despite their multi-ethnic, politically correct composition.
“Major Payne’s” writers (including Wayans) and director Nick Castle wisely do not tamper much with the pic’s essential strength — its core idea. They also nicely sidestep the pothole of overplaying its sentimentality.
One can argue that the film is painless, or that it should be Wayansless. It certainly has spit and polish and runs through its drill with admirable precision. More than that would be pushing the envelope.