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The best part of Steve Martin’s take on the legendary French inspector Jacques Clouseau is the animated opening credits, which perfectly replicate the spirit of the opening credits from the original Peter Sellers comedies.

Clouseau Begins

Martin gets some good laughs from the hot-and-cold material
Martin gets some good laughs from the hot-and-cold material

In all fairness, it’s a relief to be able to say this 2006 update of The Pink Panther doesn’t totally suck. But it’s not great, either.

It should be made clear that this is not a remake, nor a “prequel.” This is a contemporary spin on the Jacques Clouseau character, a reset akin to what Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins, but this one’s not nearly as well done.

The action begins with a double crime at a soccer match between France and China. The French coach, Yves Gluant (Jason Statham, The Italian Job), is murdered and his obnoxiously oversized gemstone, the Pink Panther, is stolen.

Enter Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, Life as a House), who quickly comes up with the fairly preposterous and contrived idea that there should be two investigations. One would recruit Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin, Shopgirl), a veritable unknown from the country who still has gained a reputation as a buffoon in Paris. The anticipated misfires generated by the newly-promoted Inspector Clouseau’s investigation would capture all the media attention while, secretly, Dreyfus heads his own inquiry.

In coming out of nowhere and solving the crime, Dreyfus expects to win the Medal of Honor, an acknowledgment he has been denied several times in the past.

The Replacements

There are some good ideas here. In going back to the humble beginnings of Jacques Clouseau, Martin and his cohorts have taken advantage of the situation and introduced a couple of interesting new characters.

One, Gendarme Gilbert Panton (Jean Reno, Leon), is essentially Clouseau’s smarter shadow during the investigation and he effectively takes the place of Clouseau’s apartment-mate, Cato. It was Cato, Clouseauphiles (or are they Jacquesobites?) will recall, with whom Clouseau constantly battled in fights designed to keep Clouseau on his toes and the pratfalls coming at a frantic pace.

Now, Panton is always one step ahead of Clouseau and his catlike reflexes are at the ready for a punch to Clouseau’s face.

The other newbie is Nicole (Emily Mortimer, Match Point), Clouseau’s librarian-hot secretary who also affords the bumbling goober some romantic tension.

Speaking of romantic tension, BeyoncĂ© Knowles (Goldmember) once again lights up the screen as the pop sensation Xania, a hottie who dated Gluant and becomes a “person of interest” during the investigation.

Partly Inspired, Partly Flat

Inspired gags riddle the film from start to finish, particularly an uncredited cameo by Clive Owen (Sin City) as British agent 006. As Clouseau smartly observes, he is “one short of the big time.” Nonetheless, 006 is one super agent who needs to remain anonymous and Clouseau is unwittingly left to take all the credit for his good work.

Martin also manages to capitalize on jokes related to the Inspector’s chopped up French accent; he even gets some good laughs out of a nice little scene involving the Chinese language. It’s also good that Martin and his co-writer, Len Blum (Stripes), steer clear, at least for the most part, of the potty humor that Mike Myers plundered with his Austin Powers movies.

Even so, there’s something sad and disappointing about the film’s Viagra pill scene and attempts to update Clouseau with jokes about the latest technology (particularly his embarrassing AOL e-mail address) fall flat.

Equally flat is Kline, who simply collects a paycheck here and makes no effort to put on a French accent (granted, neither did Herbert Lom, the original Dreyfus, for that matter). But Kline doesn’t even muster the trademark Dreyfus eye twitch; he’s just there, delivering lines without a scratch of comedic timing.

As for Martin himself, he’s merely adequate as Jacques Clouseau. Chunkier and grayer than Sellers, Martin fails to make the role his own. Of course, following in the manic footsteps of Peter Sellers is no small task, but Martin misses the right notes by more than a smidge.

Smart Cars and Stupid People

As the original adventures unfolded over five episodes (or six, if you count the posthumous Sellers tribute, The Trail of the Pink Panther), Sellers and director Blake Edwards lovingly created a whole world for their favorite detective and each movie further expanded that world and made it wackier and wackier.

It’s a world that, nearly a quarter of a century after Sellers last graced the screen with his painful physical comedy, is ripe for revisiting. Unfortunately, this Pink Panther doesn’t take full advantage of everything that’s gone before.

Instead of bringing back the hilarious junky Silver Hornet, Clouseau scoots around Paris in a brand new Smart car, the ultra small car that makes the Mini look like a barge.

OK. Smart car, stupid driver. Got it. Oh yeah, and he has a hard time parking his pimple of a car even with the space of a semi available to him. Got it.

Well, given that Martin managed to pull a sequel out of Cheaper by the Dozen, it’s highly likely he’ll be granted the opportunity to once again don Clouseau’s mustache and maybe, just maybe, Clouseau’s next adventure will provide the same vicarious thrills provided by those original classic joke fests.