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HIS MOVEMENTS are jerky. He's got flat, squinty eyes. With his massive neck, shaved head and tiny ears, he's hilarious seen from behind.

His take on romance: "If the Marines wanted me to have a wife, they would have issued me one."

This is Major Payne, the outrageous ROTC instructor played by Damon Wayans in the latest comic version of an old plot: A mean, nasty leader takes charge of a group of ragtag losers, puts them through the wringer, but gives them self-respect. (In the process, of course, the leader turns human.)

Ancient though the story is, the audience eats it up. When Payne finally cracks that facade, telling his charges, "Maybe . . . I like you guys," everyone smiled.

People love this stuff.

Damon Wayans' Major Payne is a ruthless, killing-machine Marine who is told, to his amazement and disgust, that killing is out of style. "These days, battles are fought in Congress," his superior shrugs.

Congress? Wayans' eyes fog. He can't believe what he's hearing: He's got a new gig, as ROTC instructor at a prep school.

There are draggy parts to "Major Payne" that stretch on like a desert highway. Payne's ROTC kids are our usual gang: the fat kid, the orphan, the kid with big ears. . .

But the movie has one saving grace -- Wayans himself.

Wayans, a veteran of "In Living Color," has honed his supreme silliness on a host of insensitive roles. He knows what he's doing.

For this go-round, he passes on the obvious voice (a low, tough rumble). Instead, he goes with the high and whiny. It's as if his words are being forced up and out of his mouth by some slow, hidden cog.

The high voice works wonders, since half the flick consists of Wayans reciting military chants -- things like, "One. Ain't you dumb? Two. Look at you! Three. . . ."

A sugary guidance counselor (Karyn Parsons) tries to reform him. This elicits more giggles, especially when she forces on him a book, "How to Be a Loving Role Model." Payne, pacing, scratches his head with a scimitar as he whinily reads, "The Three Bees of Caring. Bee sensitive . . . "

Often he throws in a slow "Heh . . . heh . . . heh." The audience roared.

Kids love repetition, and for them, this stuff stays funny for an hour and a half, easy. Bathroom humor, too, enticed them, as when the students slipped Major Payne a cupcake laced with laxative. (Extravagant sound effects followed.)

This is what the little darlings want, not the budding love between Payne and the counselor. ("No kissing!" one tyke hissed.)

There's lots of swearing, but I guess nobody's parents care much about that sort of thing any more. So take the little monsters. It might even teach 'em a lesson.

Major Payne

Rating: * * 1/2 Damon Wayans goes to town as a rough ROTC instructor.
Rated PG-13, now playing at area movie theaters.

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