The Pink Panther

on February 10, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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In Shawn Levy's near-miss restart of the "Pink Panther" franchise, the priceless diamond ring that gives the movie its name isn't the only thing that's disappeared. For many months, the film itself was AWOL, suffering through never-a-good-sign reshoots and the subsuming of MGM by Sony. Call it karma or coincidence, but the great Peter Sellers, synonymous with the role of bumbling French inspector Jacques Clouseau since 1964's "A Shot in the Dark" and "The Pink Panther," casts a buzz-killing pall over any new incarnation. Indeed, since his death in 1980, many have tried to fill Seller's clown shoes, including Sellers himself, posthumously inserted into 1982's "Trail of the Pink Panther." The last "Panther" caper was in 1993, when Italian wind-up doll Roberto Benigni annoyed his way through Gallic country as Clouseau's son. The one comic actor whose combination of intelligence and immaturity could possibly match Sellers is Steve Martin. And his casting here justifies the accolade. Had he been surrounded by the right people, this really could have worked. However, as crucial as Sellers' contribution was (and Martin's contribution is), it's director Blake Edwards who made the silliness sing. In his stead, we have Shawn Levy, a choice that's hardly confidence-inspiring, given his resume, which includes "Cheaper by the Dozen" (another Martin comedy).

After the welcome return of the customary Pink Panther animated credit sequence, the story kicks in, as soccer coach Yves Gluant (Jason Statham) is felled by a poison dart in a packed stadium. Gluant was wearing the enormous Pink Panther diamond, which mysteriously disappears before his body hits the ground. The task of finding the killer and the diamond falls to Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, taking over for the long-suffering Herbert Lom), who assigns the case to Clouseau, figuring he'll bungle it completely, allowing Dreyfus to swoop in, solve the crime and win the French Medal of Honor.

In a callback to the earlier movies, Clouseau has a partner, Gendarme Ponton (Jean Reno, reimagining Burt Kwouk's Cato). To keep Ponton battle-ready, Clouseau occasionally and unsuccessfully ambushes him, although the results pale in comparison to the epic fights between Sellers and Kwouk. In solving the crime, Clouseau and Ponton follow their strongest lead, Gluant's pop star girlfriend Xania (played, to no great effect, by Beyonce Knowles), around Paris and eventually to New York.

Some of the one-liners and visual jokes are clever enough to recall the hilarious "Naked Gun" TV series, like when Clouseau unveils the questionable interrogation technique of playing both the good cop and the bad cop. There's also a funny bit where he uses a dialect coach to learn an American accent, but can't get past the word "hamburger." The bit becomes a runner, as Clouseau arrives in Times Square and eats his first burger, leading to camera-swirling, gastronomic rapture. There is also an inspired cameo, where a certain debonair actor who almost became the new James Bond, appears as 006. Otherwise, much of the humor relies on Clouseau's accent ("big, brass bowls" and so forth), obliviousness and knack for leaving destruction in his wake. The latter is where Levy just can't compete with honorary Oscar-winner Blake Edwards. Whether it's an enormous globe mowing down a group of cyclists or Clouseau destroying the Waldorf-Astoria in search of a lost tab of Viagra, the zing isn't there, and the series' humor, always old- fashioned, now feels just plain old.

Considering "The Pink Panther's" pedigree, troubled production history and lousy trailer, one is justified in expecting the worst. But there's a fair amount of laughs and a breezy feeling of joie de silliness, even if the finished product isn't good enough to warrant an ongoing series. In other words, as fellow comedy crime stopper Maxwell Smart might have opined, "The Pink Panther" missed it by that much. Starring Steve Martin, Kevin Kline and Beyonce Knowles. Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Len Blum and Steve Martin. Produced by Richard Simonds. A Columbia release. Comedy. Rated PG for occasional crude and suggestive humor and language. Running time: 93 min

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