The initial shock of the Rodney King video, worn down by months on the late-night talk-show circuit, comes full circle in the latest Martin Lawrence vehicle National Security, which cheaply evokes the tape for slapstick, then makes the LAPD safe for black people again. When Spike Lee used the King footage for the incendiary opening-credits sequence to Malcolm X, he bridged the past with the present, implying that not much had changed. What a relief, then, to learn that institutional racism isn't worth fussing over anymore, even if it means sitting through a lot of rote buddy-movie theatrics and Lawrence's excruciating semi-improvisational comedy. Tasteless as it is, the King reference seems like an especially canny tack for Lawrence, who leans heavily on race-based humor but tiptoes around its jagged edges, backing away from material that would be truly provocative or discomfiting. Always more Eddie Murphy than Richard Pryor, Lawrence does nothing to shed his reputation as a second-rate Murphy in National Security, which basically reprises the Beverly Hills Cop/48 Hours formula, only with straight-to-video production values, desperate new catch phrases ("What the problem is?"), and a bleach-blond Eric Roberts. The nonsensical plot pairs him with Steve Zahn, a crew-cut, straight-arrow police officer who gets sent to prison for six months after a videotape makes it look like he was beating Lawrence with a nightstick, when in fact he was swatting away a bumblebee. With Zahn barred from the LAPD and Lawrence kicked out of the police academy, the two meet again as low-rent security guards, where they team up to defend a warehouse from Roberts and his cronies, who were also responsible for killing Zahn's old partner. Though Zahn (and the audience) has every reason to resent Lawrence for going along with the deplorable bumblebee frame-up, their acrimony melts away as they uncover Roberts' criminal syndicate, which has run off with $800,000 in computer chips and $7 million worth of aeronautical gizmos disguised as beer kegs. (A premise this needlessly convoluted suggests the perils of brainstorming with refrigerator-magnet poetry.) Racial politics aside, National Security isn't distinguishable from any other Lawrence vehicle, perhaps because his films aren't particularly democratic; all he needs is a premise that allows him to riff and a bunch of patient co-stars willing to settle for reaction shots. Buddy comedies rely on back-and-forth chemistry to work, but the naturally exuberant Zahn merely fumes behind a thick trooper mustache while Lawrence clamors for the spotlight. If he ever found a way to make desperation look like charisma, he'd be the funniest man in America.