Dir: Shawn Levy. US. 2006. 95 minutes.

Hollywood studio projection and analysisdepartments have rather crassly if understandably deemed remakes and franchisesthe surest thing going, even if one of the results is that there's often nocorrelative sense of joyful anticipation attached to these moviegoingexperiences. Owing to this and more, there's no particular reason the newiteration of The Pink Panther, starringSteve Martin, need necessarily put forth undue effort, or be any good. And yetthere's Martin, wholeheartedly investing himself in the role of bumblingInspector Jacques Clouseau, delivering his most pleasingly broad comedicperformance since 1999's Bowfinger.

Theatrical box office prospects for thefilm remain somewhat muted, if only because of the formidable competition during its debut weekend. The movie opens in North America onFebruary 10, against Harrison Ford action thriller Firewall, the latest installment in the Final Destination horror franchise and the animated family film Curious George, the former of which targets the same boomer adults most likely tofondly remember Martin's zany comedies and the latter of which may woo parentslooking for a family outing (The Pink Panther iscomfortably rated PG).

While The Pink Panther is recognizable as a brand name, it has been over ten years since the last film, Son Of The Pink Panther which did not feature Clouseau, leaving the character out of the public eye. The attachment toClouseau - particularly in the wake of the success of the referential AustinPowers films - is therefore more one of theory than provensubstance. Still, strong ancillary returns will likely make The Pink Panther, which slid over to Sony/Columbia after the acquisition of chieffinancier MGM, profitable, particularly if and when it connects with youngeraudiences through DVD.

In the wake of the murder of a soccer coachand theft of the enormous titular diamond in broad daylight in the middle of astadium full of rowdy fans during a World Cup-style match, officious ChiefInspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) decides on appointing a patsy so that he mightbuy time to crack the high-profile case himself and thus finally win theprestigious National Medal of Honor, for which he's been nominated seven times.His man, of course, is Jacques Clouseau, a blundering and inept police detectivewhom he promotes to the rank of Inspector.

To help shadow Clouseau, who frequentlyleaves a trail of accidents in his wake, Dreyfus assigns another detective,Gilbert Ponton (Jean Reno), as his partner. Together the pair embarks upon acircuitous investigation, questioning suspects that include a spurned soccerstar (William Abadie), a millionaire casino owner (Roger Rees) and thedeceased's pop star girlfriend Xania (Beyonce Knowles), each possibly withtheir own motivation for bumping him off.

Dreyfus' plan teeters on the edge ofbackfiring disastrously after Clouseau inadvertently receives credit forcapturing a group of serial robbery bandits in a funny scene involving a cameofrom Clive Owen as a vacationing British operative, Agent 006. With Clouseau nowa lauded hero, he and Ponton head to New York City to follow up a lead onXania. This eventually ends in disaster during an airport security screeningthat shames all of France and gives Dreyfus enough capital to seize control ofthe investigation and announce plans of an impending arrest at a celebratoryball that closes the movie.

Martin receives co-screenplay credit herewith Len Blum, and his familiarity with and investment in the material shows.While Shawn Levy's duty-bound direction (obliging Paris landmarks stud theframes) and comparatively flat staging are rather workmanlike, Martin fills thestory with winning, rapid-fire absurdist dialogue exchanges. Asked if he'slonely, Clouseau responds, "Not since the Internet." Then, told a suspect has beenshot in the head, he queries, "Is it fatal'" Told it is, he asks, "How fatal'"before blithely demanding to question the suspect.

Martin's Clouseau is heavily accented,lending itself to plenty of verbal jousting and wordplay amusement, as when hesits with a dialect coach in advance of his trip to the United States, andstruggles with the one phrase they have time to get through ("I would like tobuy a hamburger"). Yet the physicality of the performance is equally importantto its success. Clouseau may spawn all sorts of slapstick wackiness around him,but, particularly as the film wears on, he also possesses such an obdurateprofessional facade that in contrast makes his ineptitude even more amusing.

If The Pink Panther's secondary characters are functional stand-ins and a few loosestory ends aren't quite answered, it doesn't weigh on one's mind too heavily.It goes without saying that Clouseau eventually gets his man and trumps thegrandstanding Dreyfus, but the manner in which Martin and Blum's script deftlypays off a few seemingly throwaway comedic bits is inspired.

In smaller supporting performances,Mortimer - previously best known for her dramatic work, including Lovely& Amazing, Dear Frankie and Match Point - evinces a winningknack for comedy as Clouseau's secretary Nicole, who harbors a burgeoning crushon him. Pop star Knowles, meanwhile, continues to prove wooden and unconvincingas a big screen presence; her most meaningful contribution here is Check OnIt, the up-tempo song played over the closing credits.

Prod co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures,Columbia Pictures

North American distribution: Columbia/SonyPictures

International distribution: Sony PicturesReleasing International

Producer: Robert Simonds

Executive producer: Tracey Trench, IraShuman

Screenplay: Len Blum and Steve Martin, froma story by Len Blum and Michael Saltzman

Cinematography: Jonathan Brown

Production design: Lilly Kilvert

Editor: George Folsey, Jr. and Brad E.Wilhite

Music: Christophe Beck

Main cast: Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, JeanReno, Emily Mortimer, Henry Czerny, Beyonce Knowles, William Abadie, RogerRees, Kristin Chenoweth