Major Payne

Major Payne. Wife n’ Kids Productions 1995.

Before watching the movie:

One more that I never heard of until I saw it floating around my sources. Damon Wayans terrorizes some JROTC kids as their drill instructor, so it sounds like fun. As the instructor is the protagonist, it sounds like a bit of the inverse of movies like Sgt. Bilko and Stripes.

I’m sure there will be one or two kids with an interesting quirk, but I don’t have high expectations for a memorable bunch, just a generic group of misfit boys trying to get the ex-Marine off their backs.

After watching the movie:

USMC Maj. Benson Payne has been in bloody conflicts around the world and always gotten results, but for the second time, the promotion board did not give him the rank of Lt. Colonel, and apparently up-or-out policy means the Marines are required to discharge him after being passed over twice. After failing catastrophically to join the police by being too violent, his old general gets him a job as the commandant of the Madison Preparatory School JROTC program. The delinquent, slovenly bunch of boys has not won the Virginia Military Games in eight years. Payne applies the same brutal discipline methods that always served him training in the Marines, but the school’s counselor Emily Walburn immediately objects to his shaving their heads, denying them bathroom breaks, and generally berating and humiliating them. Emily tries to teach Payne to temper his tactics with understanding and support, and he does learn some limits, but still makes the boys so miserable they make multiple attempts to get rid of him, eventually escalating to oldest squad member Alex Stone collecting money from the rest to hire a tough biker to try to intimidate Payne into leaving. When Payne threatens to punish the entire squad, Stone steps forward and claims he acted alone, but instead of expelling him, Payne makes Stone the squad’s new squad leader, and offers him a deal: get the Military Games trophy, by black ops heist or by earning it in the Games, and Payne will leave for good.

I don’t think Payne is supposed to be likeable at first. I think he’s supposed to be fun to watch, but while his intent may be intended to be sympathetic, his methods are not. I generally didn’t enjoy his behavior until he started to warm up to the boys, but that might be the evolution of current sensibilities. Payne’s entire point is that he needs to learn to be sensitive and build up the boys, but there’s “haha that’s too far” and then there’s “what an awful person, how is he allowed to be anywhere near those kids?” It also bothered me that he calls all foreign combatants “Charlie”, considering Wayans was a teenager when the Vietnam War ended. I’m not sure if that’s a Marine thing or a “the writers watched too many Vietnam-era war movies” thing, but I suspect it’s the latter.

While most of the kids get established early on as having one defining character quirk, really only the oldest, Stone, and the youngest, Tiger, get anything to do after the introductions are made. They just fade into one conglomerate of “misfit boys”. I think the closest any of the rest of them get to having characterization is Dotson, the original squad leader, who is so clearly there just for the privilege of bossing around the other boys that he transfers to another school when Payne gives his job to Stone.

That this movie didn’t get going for me until the second act or so is entirely down to the movie’s main source of humor not being funny to me. It’s a charming feel-good story once it gets the culture clash gags out of the way, but overall it was tainted by pre-growth Payne’s everything. People who think dislocating an ally’s finger to get his mind off a bullet wound is a hilarious joke will probably enjoy this movie, but I didn’t care for it until Payne cared for them.

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