Directed by Nick Castle. Starring Damon Wayans, Karyn Parsons, William Hickey, Michael Ironside, Albert Hall, Steven Martini, Chris Owen. (1995, PG, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Louis Black, Fri., March 31, 1995
Damon Wayans does brilliant Damon Wayans shtick in this familiarly themed story of a crusty-hearted (okay, in this case, almost clearly deranged) military man confronting, confounding, and challenging a motley group of shiftless, young prep school students. A trained killing machine who seems to truly love his work, Major Payne (Wayans) is let go by the army and hired by Madison Academy to whip their junior R.O.T.C. troop into shape (they've come in dead last in the Virginia Junior Military games eight years running). The group, a classic mix, ranging from the fat one to the bespectacled intellectual and including a hip-hop African-American, is still, as they always are, led by the handsome, good-looking, muscular, athletic rebel (Martini). Completely military in his approach, Payne soon has the cadets hating him and scheming against him. In return, he shaves their heads, buries them in mud and threatens them with live grenades. Philosophically reprehensible, the failure of Major Payne is that director Nick Castle's musical sensibilities are at odds with Wayans' explosive Jerry Lewis potential. Castle will always be among my favorite directors simply because of The Last Starfighter (he also collaborated with John Carpenter on the script for Escape From New York). Tap, Castle's fictional tribute to the dance form, is fine, but Dennis the Menace, his biggest commercial hit, lacked spark. Unfortunately, there is nothing to recommend Major Payne except occasional bits of Wayans' near insane performance; he is the military man's military man turning a bedtime rendition of the story of The Little Engine That Could into a blood-and-guts jungle nightmare. The film compounds its sins by defining none of its characters. The cadets are one-dimensional; the different personalities in the unit are never brought out and there is no information on their backgrounds, except for the most gratuitous references (i.e., a too-obvious visiting scene with Martini and his stepfather, to make the point about who his real father is now). The film treats the cadets as pawns to Payne's performance but then doesn't go far enough with his performance. If only the film had gone a little mad with him. Trust the character is a good rule of thumb for mad comics: Just check the astonishing work of Jim Carrey. Most of the blame probably belongs to Wayans, who not only starred but co-wrote and co-executive produced. Along with the lack of real characters, the only story is one we've seen so many times before: a stern military presence at first meeting resistance and then, through actions that don't completely make sense and sometimes seem violent and brutal, whips the men into an effective unit. What there is here is Damon Wayans ripping up the screen -- which is entertaining but doesn't go far enough -- but this film really isn't about anything else. My 4 1/2 year old cracked up at the butt jokes but doesn't know what “turd” means so he missed much of the verbal humor.