Inspector Jacques Clouseau returns for his 11th big-screen outing, and the results are, quite surprisingly, fairly charming for a series that was made popular by the late, great Peter Sellers all the way back in 1963 and has been somewhat uneven despite its few undeniable classics. That's not to say that Steve Martin doesn't make the bumbling detective his own -- just that, like George Lazenby playing James Bond, it's often difficult to warm to second best, even when you're talking about first-rate talent.
The story starts in a whirlwind crime spree: the Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin, and the Imperial Sword have all been swiped by "The Tornado" -- a master thief who has somehow managed to thwart the most advanced security systems in the world. In order to ensure their safe recovery, a dream team of international detectives has been assembled. Chief Inspector Dreyfus (John Cleese) has just received a special request to take Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) off his current assignment and make him an official member of the team, which also includes smooth-talking Italian sleuth Vincenzo (Andy Garcia), English deductive reasoning specialist Pepperidge (Alfred Molina), and Japanese whiz kid Kenji (Yuki Matsuzaki), who relies on advanced technology to track the bad guys. But just as Insp. Clouseau boards a plane to join the dream team abroad, the legendary Pink Panther diamond is stolen right out from under the nose of Chief Inspector Dreyfus, forcing the investigation to begin in France. As the team begins combing the crime scene, ravishing detective Sonia (Aishwarya Rai) appears to assist in the investigation. She's a last-minute addition to the team, and while not as distinguished as her fellow detectives, Sonia possesses exactly the kind of reasoning skills that could prove key in tracking down the elusive Tornado. Meanwhile, Insp. Clouseau's right-hand man, Ponton (Jean Reno), provides some indispensable assistance, and the lovely Nicole (Emily Mortimer) records the team's every finding.
If The Pink Panther 2 had been released when the series was still at its strongest, chances are that it would have been considered only a minor installment. As a comedy, it's got plenty going for it -- including a great lead in Martin, a strong supporting cast, classy production values, a cute romantic subplot, and a screenplay that keeps the gags flowing at a steady pace -- but the law of diminishing returns still applies, and at this point the Pink Panther series is simply coasting on the nostalgia of parents rather that the enthusiasm of a youthful audience. Make no mistake, watching John Cleese bash his head against the wall out of sheer frustration with Clouseau serves well to convey Chief Inspector Dreyfus' unique brand of psychosis, and Martin has the kind of flair for buffoonery and physical comedy that makes him perhaps the best candidate to carry the torch lit by Peter Sellers back in the early '60s -- the main problem with The Pink Panther 2 is that, despite Martin's direct involvement with the screenplay, the mere existence of the film is a reminder of just how great things used to be. It's kind of like when your favorite band from two decades ago decides to head out on a reunion tour and you discover that the only remaining member from the original lineup is the drummer; the beats may remain the same, even though the original magic has long since faded. The moment we hear Henry Mancini's familiar theme during the opening credits, we know that the chances of The Pink Panther 2 being a comedy classic are slim to none, yet we still hum along and smile with the knowledge that, no matter what comes next, we're witnessing part of a legacy that's endured for decades, and will likely carry on for many more. And if The Pink Panther 2 can keep our kids laughing while giving them the same warm memories we associate with the best installments of the series, then it's still a success no matter how well it measures up to the original.