National Security (2003) Movie Review

“National Security’s” biggest conceit is that its star, Martin Lawrence, is charming. Alas, he is not. Not in the least bit. Not remotely. Not if he spent $20 million a year (his salary for “National Security”) paying the best scientists in the world to turn him into one. Martin Lawrence, who started life as a comedian, somehow segue that into a long-running sitcom, and has now become a faux movie star, is the antithesis of charming. Lawrence comes from the Chris Tucker School of Acting, which includes false bravado, lewdness, and a big mouth as disguises for a general lack of talent.

“National Security” tells the tale of white man Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn), an honest cop who loses his partner during a botched warehouse robbery by some high-tech thieves. Later, Hank is accused of using excessive force on Earl Montgomery (Lawrence), a wannabe cop kicked out of the police academy because he is — well, he’s Martin Lawrence. Seeing the shadows of racism in every corner and in every white man’s face, Earl manages to convince the world that Hank severely beat him during a traffic stop, thus Hank is sent to prison. Later, Hank gets released, becomes a security guard, and somehow teams up with Earl to go after the thieves.

The truth is, Hank didn’t really beat Earl; Earl’s bruises and facial swelling were caused by an allergy to a bee sting. But since Earl, our hero, has convinced himself that Hank’s intent was to beat him anyway, he has neglected to tell a smitten of truth during the trial. And so Earl, our hero, has allowed a good man to go to prison, and feels not a bit of guilt over it because, you know, Hank is white and he’s probably a racist anyway.

Of course the screenplay by Jay Scherick and David Ronn is actually the most racist thing about “National Security”. It’s amazing just how much racism you can get away with as long as you convince the people you’re stereotyping that the joke is on the “other guy”. In “National Security” Martin Lawrence is the obvious star, but it’s his character that is the butt of jokes, and the one who the script is calling a big fat racist, not Hank. Oh yes, Hank Rafferty gets called names and is generally put through the wringer, but it’s Earl Montgomery who is really the true object of the movie’s scorn. Earl is overtly stupid, bigoted, misogynist, and a total fool.

The character of Earl is, for all intents and purpose, a combination of the simpleton “coon” and the lust-frenzied “buck”, two stereotypes that dominated images of African-Americans in early 20th century cinema. In the 21st century, Scherick and Ronn have successfully transplanted the coon and buck into Earl Montgomery, but because Martin Lawrence gets top billing and was paid $20 million for his starring power, the audience didn’t get the insult. Instead, they believe the joke was on “the white man” Hank. What does this prove? One: movie audiences are generally unintelligent; and two: Martin Lawrence is unintelligent because he allowed himself to be used. To wit: “National Security” is the type of film that the Klu Klux Klan would proudly use as a recruitment tool.

As a movie, “National Security” is a poor excuse to spend 90 minutes of one’s time. It’s not entirely funny, except for a scene where Hank finally asks Earl the one question that has been on all of our minds, which is: “Do you really believe all the crap that comes out of your mouth?” It’s a good question, because it is reasonable to assume that comedian Lawrence probably did a lot of on-the-spot adlibbing during the shoot. If anyone has seen Lawrence’s stand-up comedy, they’ll see that millionaire Lawrence still believes “The Man” is out to get him. Apparently to a simpleton like Lawrence The Man’s way of “getting” you is to give you $20 million per movie.

The biggest victim of “National Security”, besides Black Americans, is Steve Zahn, who was lured with the price of getting his name on the marquee. Zahn is a terrific character actor, but he’s out of his elements here. One almost feels sorry for him as Lawrence’s character steps all over him in the service of “comedy”. Later in the film, we learn that Zahn’s Hank actually has a black live-in girlfriend. You might think this fact would counter the argument that Hank is a racist, but apparently not, because no one bothers to mention this little tidbit until we actually meet the girlfriend, post-Hank’s incarceration.

Dennis Dugan (director) / Jay Scherick, David Ronn (screenplay)
CAST: Steve Zahn …. Hank Rafferty
Martin Lawrence …. Earl


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