Martin's 'Panther 2' a declawed comedy

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If there's a huge error behind "The Pink Panther 2" — other than the mistake of producing the sequel in the first place — it's pairing Steve Martin with John Cleese, then failing to capitalize on their potentially explosive verbal exchanges.

Anyone familiar with Cleese's outrageous accent as the taunting French knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is in for a disappointment when he first opens his mouth as Chief Inspector Dreyfus — and a crisp British voice tumbles out.

We never do learn why a Parisian police official would have a British accent. The back-story probably is one we'll never see on the DVD making-of featurette, that the filmmakers couldn't have a supporting player continually upstage their star.

Reprising the Peter Sellers role as France's supreme imbecile Inspector Clouseau, Martin again does nothing more than a passable parody of a French accent.

Cleese — taking over from Kevin Kline, who played Clouseau's long-suffering boss Dreyfus in 2006's "The Pink Panther" — could have run blustery circles around Martin in the vocal department.

And who knows, it might have upped Martin's game to be challenged by another comedian with a finer ear and a throatier delivery.

Certainly, it could have left this wafer-thin crime romp with a lot more laughs.

Even so, the sequel is amusing in spots, with a few sight gags that border on inspired, particularly a segment where the antics of Martin's Clouseau are captured on a variety of security videos at the mansion of a rich suspect (Jeremy Irons, who's just too good for such piffling material).

This time out, Clouseau is paired with an international "dream team" of detectives and experts (Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Yuki Matsuzaki) to find "The Tornado," a legendary thief who has swiped the Shroud of Turin, the Magna Carta, the pope's ring and other treasures.

Tagging along are Clouseau's faithful partner (Jean Reno) and awkward love interest (Emily Mortimer) from the first movie, with some romantic hijinks involving Garcia and Rai Bachchan thrown in to spice things up.

Director Harald Zwart ("Agent Cody Banks"), working from a screenplay credited to Martin, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, assembles what amounts to 90 minutes of slapstick sketches, each trying to heighten the level of Clouseau's idiocy.

There are chuckles, maybe even a belly laugh or two if you're in a charitable mood. But the movie's mostly a waste of time and talent, including the reunion of Martin with "All of Me" co-star Lily Tomlin, who has a few pointless walk-ons as a police department coach on political correctness.

Sellers and Blake Edwards' original "Pink Panther" flicks could be hit and miss, but they had an overriding sense of sophistication and worldliness. Even though Martin's aiming for a family audience, his take on Clouseau at least could be something a shade above juvenile.

"The Pink Panther 2," released by MGM and Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated PG for some suggestive humor, brief mild language and action. Running time: 96 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


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