Remember Officer Friendly, that paragon of proper authority who popped in at grade school assemblies to assure kids that the badge was to be respected and all but embraced as a symbol of things right and good? Officer Friendly's dead now, and into that vacancy have stepped the dumb and the dangerous.
Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) embodies both the old-school hardass and the modern-day dolt, and while he only oversees the territory of the fictional Forest Ridge Mall, he does so with an inflated ego and the most violent of tendencies. If it weren't for those pesky psychological evaluations, he might even be a cop by now. Instead, he's a model of misguided machismo on a mission: to stop the flasher who has been terrorizing his domain.
It's a flimsy premise, one ripe for the silliest of sitcom material (we'll get to Paul Blart: Mall Cop in a moment), but Rogen and writer-director Jody Hill wring out of it a scary-funny character study about a warped man and his twisted sense of what it means to be a hero. In Ronnie's eyes, to save the day means breaking out the Taser with his partner-in-crime (a lisping Michael Peña) by his side; to love a woman (Anna Faris, as hilarious and off-putting as ever) means nearly committing date rape.
There are plenty of surface laughs to be had here, but Hill seems more concerned with pushing buttons and bending boundaries in order to get a better understanding of who Ronnie is and why he acts the way he does. An understanding, mind you, not a justification: Ronnie isn't an antihero, despite his traces of Taxi Driver and Oldboy ancestry. He's a hero in his own mind and on his own turf, and Rogen is more deeply invested in this portrayal than any before, leaping in with depth and darkness.
Therein lies the difference between the lowest-common-denominator antics of one Paul Blart and those of Ronnie Barnhardt. In the former film, Paul has hypoglycemia, and his condition is used as an excuse to fall down. Here, Ronnie's bipolar tendencies propel the plot, setting up our ill-tempered protagonist for a fall and a distorted concept of redemption.
The biggest sign that Rogen and Hill have ripped something special from the darkness is when the genuine shock of a climactic act of violence gives way to the awe that everything had led up to that moment logically, if only in Ronnie's line of thinking. With all due respect to the late Officer Friendly, this is the face of a new hero, one who can show us right from wrong without necessarily knowing which is which.