`Security' filled with chases, but not laughs

January 17, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The one daring joke in the action comedy National Security comes near the beginning. A black man, Martin Lawrence, gets a white cop, Steve Zahn, tossed into prison when a videocam captures the officer clubbing him without mercy. But the audience knows that the tape lies: Zahn was trying to beat away a bumblebee because Lawrence is allergic to the insect.

This gleefully unfair reversal gets viewers hoping for the freewheeling racial vaudeville of an Undercover Brother. What ensues, unfortunately, is yet another odd-couple car-chase movie in which the cocky, gabby African-American and the righteous, taciturn Caucasian trade punches and bond before they bag the bad guys.

By now, any moviegoer or TV-watcher has seen the scenario replayed 48 times in the 20 years since 48 HRS. - a movie that holds up thanks to craft and hardboiled wit. National Security has none of that. You watch with a deadening sense of deja vu as Lawrence, a police academy reject, and Zahn, now an ex-con, enlist at the same security agency and end up uniting against the same high-stakes smuggler (Eric Roberts) who killed Zahn's partner when Zahn was still on the force.

In a stunning display of career acuity, the movie's screenwriters, Jay Scherick and David Ronn, have erased I Spy (starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson) from their current press-kit resume. But the ghost of that turkey gobbles through this picture.

Once again, the salt-and-pepper comedy is based on an unsavory blend of cracked pepper (Lawrence/Murphy) and weird, fuzzy salt (Zahn/Wilson). Once again, a TV-bred actor-turned-director (Dennis Dugan here, Betty Thomas in I Spy) fails to meld suspense and farce or to bring even the wildest pursuits and smash-ups any visual sense of comedy. And once again, the pace becomes monotonously relentless until the stars share an actual dialogue scene roughly an hour into the picture(on a Los Angeles rooftop instead of in a Budapest sewer).

Apart from the incriminating videotape, the sole memorable image is a testament to product placement: the villains pin down the heroes amid a multitude of Coca-Cola cartons. In National Security, familiarity isn't the only thing that breeds contempt.

National Security

Starring Martin Lawrence, Steve Zahn, Eric Roberts, Bill Duke

Directed by Dennis Dugan

Rated PG-13

Released by Sony

Time 89 minutes

Sun Score: *

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