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‘Miss Congeniality 2’ has a case of sequelitis

Sandra Bullock is back on the job as an FBI agent. By John Hartl

The Christmas 2000 slapstick comedy, “Miss Congeniality,” was enough of a hit to inspire not only a special-edition DVD but a big-screen sequel: “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.” Still, it’s not likely to become a franchise.

The first film starred Sandra Bullock as Gracie Hart, a graceless FBI agent who infiltrated a beauty contest threatened by a terrorist. In the mostly misguided sequel, Gracie is still a federal agent, but as a consequence of her success in the pageant, she’s become a talk-show regular — “the face of the FBI.”

That’s not a bad idea for a followup film that’s attempting to be more than a rehash. The episodes with Gracie trading quips with Regis Philbin and publicizing her ghost-written best-seller are amusing enough, but then a kidnapping plot is introduced, and the movie starts to lose humor and perspective.

You can almost feel the laughs drain out of it as Gracie is saddled with a team of  familiar accomplices: a tough-talking bodyguard (Regina King) who instigates catfights, a goofy junior agent (Enrique Murciano), a hopelessly stuffy supervisor (Treat Williams) and a swishy “stylist” (Diedrich Bader) who makes “Jack” on “Will & Grace” seem subdued.

Candice Bergen and Michael Caine, who provided much of the fizz and fun in the original, have not returned. William Shatner is back, once more playing an amiably smug emcee and washed-up actor (“I played Iago in ‘Twelfth Night’,” he boasts), but this time Shatner doesn’t get much more screen time than Dolly Parton, who turns up in an unfortunate cameo role.

Screenwriter Marc Lawrence, who also wrote the first film, seems to have forgotten everything that clicked in the original: the smart beauty-pageant satire (replaced here by a dopey Las Vegas drag show), Caine’s “Pygmalion”-like makeover of Gracie (echoed weakly in her relationship with the stylist), Bergen’s imperious pageant director, Shatner’s hilariously oblivious self-promoter, and Bullock’s snorting klutz. 

She still snorts, and she still trips over things and jams TV dinners into microwaves, but Lawrence and director John Pasquin (“The Santa Clause”) seem determined to turn Gracie into an action hero rather than a fish out of water.

It’s a mistake that it is only magnified by the final scenes, in which Gracie nearly drowns at the Las Vegas tourist attraction, Treasure Island. While the filmmakers set most of the film in Vegas, they do surprisingly little with the recent makeover of the city, which is clearly aching for a poet to chronicle the proliferation of elaborately faked landscapes.

Under the circumstances, the actors score a few hits. Bullock, who can be somewhat mannered in straight-romantic roles, has always connected with this character, whose lack of self-esteem can be simultaneously funny and touching. King, who played Ray Charles’ mistress in “Ray,” demonstrates a rowdy talent for musical comedy in the drag-queen segment.

Murciano, star of TV’s “Without a Trace,” seems to be operating on a different wave-length than the other actors. Given almost nothing to work with, he creates a character with a history, a distinct personality and an infectious gift for self-deprecating humor.