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Published: Friday, 1/17/2003

National Security: Stars make comedy a January surprise


Considering that January generally means Oscar contenders will be moving into smaller markets and studios will be releasing the D-list movies upon which they're just trying to break even, National Security is a pleasant surprise.

It's neither an Oscar contender nor a dreg and - a bonus - there's not one flatulence joke. (This does not mean, however, that it's a family movie. Blue language and off-color jokes are still pervasive.)

Martin Lawrence gets star billing, and it's true that the fast-talking, rubber-faced comedian has the flashier role, but Steve Zahn does more than his share in making this comedy watchable. The star of such films as Happy, Texas, and Riding in Cars with Boys, Zahn gives a solid, steady performance that makes National Security better than it has any right to be.

One big problem is that Lawrence's character, Earl Montgomery, behaves so badly, his too-easy redemption - using the term loosely - is tough to accept.

Earl is a cadet whose attitude gets him thrown out of the Los Angeles Police Academy. Zahn plays Hank Rafferty, an L.A. cop whose partner is killed in the line of duty. The pair have the misfortune of meeting when Hank stops to question Earl about a potential car theft.

Earl claims he's being questioned just because he is black, and he may have a point. But thanks to a bumblebee - you have to be there - Earl is able to frame Hank on a charge of police brutality.

Hank finds himself off the force and in prison for six months. After that, it's kind of hard to like Earl, especially when he shows no remorse whatsoever.

When Hank gets out of prison, the only job he can find is as a security guard, which at least gives him time to pursue the few clues he has in his partner's death. One of those clues leads to a potential robbery, the same kind in which his partner was killed.

Unfortunately, Hank again runs into Earl, who is also a security guard but whose own undercover investigation in-volves the sexy office secretary and a pair of handcuffs.

When the dust and the smoke settle after the robbery, Hank finds that he's become half of a battling-buddy team, and if he doesn't go along with Earl, he'll end up back in prison.

OK, the premise makes dryer lint look substantial, but writers Jay Scherick and David Ronn have the guts to give Zahn some freedom to perform. This makes the sparring in National Security at least unexpected, if not exactly original. Lawrence and Zahn also manage to develop enough chemistry to make the proceedings enjoyable.

Director Dennis Dugan, who turned a recurring role on The Rockford Files into a series, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, on TV, has some talent with broad comedy. Both Big Daddy and Happy Gilmore are his, and he knows enough to keep National Security moving along so that the thin spots aren't obvious.

It's not rocket science, but with quite a few laughs and a genuinely fine performance by Zahn, neither is it a waste of time or ticket price.

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