Back in 1986 John Candy and Eugene Levy, who’d worked together on the SCTV series, made the leap to the big screen in “Armed and Dangerous.” They were actually a pretty good comedy team, but they could do little with the atrocious script which cast them as a couple of bumbling security men, and they understandably went their separate ways afterward. Who could have imagined that anybody might have thought that what we need now is essentially a remake of that unlamented turkey? Nonetheless that’s what we’re given in “National Security,” a slapsticky buddy action-comedy so bad that it’s hard to decide who’s dumber: the two guards at the center of things or the filmmakers who’ve put them there. (To rub our noses in the movie’s pedigree, Joe Flaherty, another SCTV alumnus, pops up briefly for a cameo as the security firm’s officious instructor.)
The unfortunate duo in this case consists of Earl Montgomery (Martin Lawrence), an LAPD recruit who’s tossed out of the academy because of his excessive zeal (rather than his irritation quotient which–given who’s playing him–is understandably high), and Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn), a cop removed from the force (and jailed) as the result of a false beating accusation Montgomery had made against him. The obviously mismatched pair bicker and upstage one another after they’re accidentally thrown together against a big theft ring involving a dastardly kingpin (Eric Roberts, with horrendous bleached-blond hair) and some corrupt lawmen. Of course, they have to collaborate to survive and catch the villains. Much purportedly humorous mayhem ensues, and the guys inevitably become best buddies in the process.
This thoroughly predictable scenario (by a writing team whose previous masterpiece was the dreadful “Serving Sara”) manages the worst of both worlds: it’s cruelly unfunny, while offering a level of violence–mostly consisting of a series of flamboyantly destructive gunfights and vehicle chases–that will drown out any stray laughter that might occur. (In its treatment of race it’s peculiarly tasteless, too, not merely making a joke of the very real problem of rogue police but dealing with interracial romance in a fashion that seems totally phony in this context. And, of course, Lawrence is already a walking stereotype.) It’s all been flaccidly directed by Dennis Dugan, whose main contribution appears to have consisted in giving his stars absolutely free rein in the mugging department. It’s difficult to say which of the two wins the competition between them. Lawrence is his usual boisterous self, smug and motor-mouthed, and as always he’s awfully hard to take. Zahn tries to match him and pretty much succeeds, but at the loss of the goofy innocence he’s displayed in previous films like “Happy, Texas.” (The “serious” bits in which he agonizes over his dead partner seem out-of-place, too.) Roberts does the snarly bit with his customary oiliness, though the dye job really is a distraction; Colm Feore and Bill Duke are wasted as the obligatory higher-ups in the LAPD (which of them do you suppose turns out to be dirty?).
It’s possible that in the current post-9/11 world, some viewers may be lured into “National Security” in the mistaken assumption that the picture has something to do with keeping the country safe in an age of terrorism. But the greater danger is that they’ll be drawn to it in the misbegotten belief that it’s a comedy. In reality it’s just a loud, frantic and surprisingly mean-spirited mess.