The obvious jokes in "Major Payne" may give you minor pain, but laughter is pretty good medicine, and this film does have laughs.
Damon Wayans stars as Major Payne, a none-too-bright killer for the Marines who finds himself removed from the service, the only life he knows. A mentor digs him up a spot as the Junior ROTC chief at a private school, but the major, whose only idea of fun is taking apart his guns and putting them back together while he hangs upside down and blindfolded, has a bit of trouble adjusting. So do the kids, who are stereotypically geeky, cute or chubby (this is not a film for someone who hates fat jokes).
Payne feels his duty is to get the kids in shape to win the Virginia military games. He drills them mercilessly, and the shock of some of the things he says and does to them is where the movie's dark humor starts. Tempering his gung-ho high jinks is saccharine school nurse Emily (Karyn Parsons).
OK, so you know exactly how it will end. You've seen every military-misfit cliche before. The love story is ridiculous at best. The coarse jokes are stinky and familiar. Even the big drill scene, jTC in which the kids compete for the military games trophy, is a hip-hop rip-off of Bill Murray's antics in "Stripes."
The thing is, if you're not looking for another "Full Metal Jacket," it's funny.
Wayans, who co-wrote the screenplay, turns his caricature into a three-dimensional character who's half satire, half hero. He's the ultimate misfit, a machine of a man with an oddball personality and a cue-ball head. Since he can't adjust to the civilian world (his retelling of "The Little Engine That Could" turns into a hilariously bloody war story), he makes the world adjust to him.
The script drives a terribly familiar road but has enough witty off-ramps to keep things interesting. And director Nick Castle, who seems to specialize in lighter-than-air films ("The Boy Who Could Fly," "The Last Starfighter"), keeps things moving.
As for the supporting characters, William Hickey, who plays yet another whiny, annoying old guy, and Michael Ironside, whose abusive drunk looks a lot like Duke in "Doonesbury," are on the screen for so little time that if you blink, you might miss them. Bumping them out of their prominent billing should have been Steven Martini, who plays Cadet Alex Stone, the young man who motivates the kids under Payne's command. He's got charm, looks (he resembles a young Scott Bakula) and enough talent to give his fairly routine lines warmth and resonance.
If we've established that you're not going to think too much at "Major Payne," then you know what you're in for: offbeat humor that stays in the shallow end.
Starring Damon Wayans and Karyn Parsons
Directed by Nick Castle
Released by Universal
Rated PG-13 (language)