Oct 042006
two reels

When a French soccer coach (played by the very British Jason Statham) is murdered and the Pink Panther diamond is stolen, fame-seeking Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) brings in Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) to bungle the case.  With Detective Second Class Ponton (Jean Reno) at his side, and following pop star and suspect Xania (Beyoncé Knowles), Clouseau is far more successful than anticipated.

Yes, the Pink Panther is back.  That’s the diamond which gave its name to the multi-picture slapstick comedy series featuring the  feebleminded Inspector Clouseau.  It looks different now, about half the size it was in the older films, and set in a ring.  It is less attractive, less interesting, and looks a bit silly and out of place.  Yeah, somewhere in there I stopped talking about the rock and switched to commenting on this unnecessary prequel.

Writer-director Blake Edwards began the series in 1963 with The Pink Panther.  Intended as a set piece for David Niven’s suave jewel thief, Peter Sellers stole the show with a combination of witty dialog and walking into walls.  The film introduced memorable music from Henry Mancini and an animated panther that frolicked in the credits.  Within a year, Sellers was back as the unquestioned star in A Shot in the Dark, the best of the ten related features.  Sellers would return three more times alive, and once after his death (in an embarrassing exercise in greed that spliced unused footage from a previous film to new shots, producing an abomination) to play the ever more cartoonish policeman.  Not content to let the series retain what little dignity it had left, Blake continued making “Pink Panther” films without Sellers, and without anything close to humor.  Finally, in 1993, he let the corpse be.  Now, thirteen years later, it has been resurrected by producer Robert Simons (who is the man behind such artistic triumphs as Joe Dirt and Corky Romano) and director Shawn Levy (who helmed the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen and episodes of the 90’s Lassie TV series), with Steve Martin (who shows no sign of remembering that he was once clever) in the lead.  Under the circumstances, it could have been a lot worse.

Obviously Martin is no Sellers, and the jokes have a musty smell about them, but the new The Pink Panther (which is not a remake of the ’63 film, but a story about how Clouseau became an inspector, even though it is set forty years too late) is far from the worst of the series.  There are a few laughs to be found, and it is generally mildly amusing.

Martin dominates the movie, with everyone else playing straight man.  He contorts his face while abusing a French accent, knocks down curtains, causes too many accidents to count, and falls down.  That’s pretty much it.  The talents of Kevin Kline (who would have been better in the lead) and Jean Reno are wasted.  Beyoncé Knowles is little more than furniture (she had a more complex role in Austin Powers in Goldmember; dwell on that for a moment).  So it all comes down to how much you like watching Steve Martin do a tired Peter Sellers routine.

Half of the jokes are directly related to ones from the old films.  If you haven’t seen those movies, the gags aren’t as funny.  And if you have, its hard to figure why watching this is a better choice than tossing on your DVD of A Shot in the Dark.

Still, there is a little magic to be found when the first notes of Mancini’s theme call forth the Pink Panther (the character, not the gem or the film title).  I’ve had a worse time at the cinema.  But instead of dwelling any more on this production, I’m going to get my old DVDs out.

The other films in the series are: The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), Inspector Clouseau (1968) with Alan Arkin in the title role, The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), “starring” Sellers after his death, Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), which introduced a new, bumbling policeman, and Son of the Pink Panther (1993), with Roberto Benigni as Clouseau’s illegitimate son.