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‘Pink Panther’ is a franchise killer

Steve Martin just doesn’t have the stuff to fill Peter Sellers’ shoes

About midway through the new franchise-killer, “The Pink Panther,” Steve Martin’s would-be Inspector Clouseau meets Clive Owen’s would-be James Bond, who clings to his inferior identity as agent 006.

The script, by Martin and Len Blum, offers no enlightening reason for this meeting of 1960s icons, but that’s par for the course here. The movie is a shapeless parade of tired jokes about the Internet, Viagra, karate, homophobia and breaking wind — as loudly and as publicly as possible, of course. Anything goes.

The new storyline begins with the murder of a celebrity soccer coach and the theft of his priceless diamond ring (nicknamed the Pink Panther). The klutzy French policeman Clouseau is recruited by tricky Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) to solve the mystery. Along for the ride is Clouseau’s latest sidekick, Ponton (Jean Reno), who is supposed to keep him on his toes — just like Burt Kwouk’s Cato in the old “Panther” movies.

A Pink Panther cartoon winds through the opening credits, Henry Mancini’s irresistible original score is lovingly recreated, and Blake Edwards is given full acknowledgment for creating the style of the original Clouseau movies. Unfortunately, this latest Clouseau adventure lacks the essential character logic that shaped the first “Panther” and its splendid sequel, “A Shot in the Dark.”

In other words, it lacks Peter Sellers, whose meticulously warped genius was also missing from such misbegotten “Panther” spin-offs as “Curse of the Pink Panther” (Ted Wass filled in for Sellers) and “Inspector Clouseau” (Alan Arkin mimicked him). Roberto Benigni fared no better when he played Clouseau’s offspring in “Son of the Pink Panther.”

Martin has a few sweet moments during the opening scenes, when he’s trying to establish a rapport with a ditsy admirer. And his attempt to rid himself of his unwieldy French accent provides at least one classic Clouseau episode. But Martin’s Clouseau is too knowing, too self-aware, and too lacking in gullibility. Martin never taps into Clouseau’s naïve romantic charm. He sometimes seems to fear that the audience will mistake him for the amiable dunce he’s playing.

Kline also shows promise toward the beginning; as long as the focus is on Dreyfus and his perspective, the movie seems sly and full of potential. Once he’s driven into the background, any chance for a coherent approach is blown off. Also wasted are Emily Mortimer, Kristin Chenoweth and Beyonce Knowles as the dead man’s glamorous girlfriend.

Using the title “The Pink Panther” suggests that the new film is a remake of the 1964 “Pink Panther” that started the series. The new script has almost nothing to do with that film, which originally functioned more as a David Niven vehicle than as a Sellers launching pad for the Clouseau franchise.

While it pretends to have a plot, the new film, directed carelessly by Shawn Levy (who made Martin’s “Cheaper By the Dozen”), is essentially a collection of slapstick episodes that don’t build toward anything. The final scenes seem arbitrary and inflated. No wonder this “Panther,” even at 92 minutes, seems overlong.