What is the moviegoer with a good memory to do when confronted with "The Pink Panther," directed by Shawn Levy and starring Steve Martin? Is it possible to forget Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers? It is not. Their best Pink Panther movies did wonderfully what could not be done so well by anyone else, and not even, at the end, by them. (There was the sad "Trail of the Pink Panther" in 1982, cobbled together from outtakes after Sellers died in 1980). Inspector Clouseau has been played by other actors before Martin (Alan Arkin and Roger Moore), but what's the point? The character isn't bigger than the actor, as Batman and maybe James Bond are. The character is the actor, and I had rather not see Steve Martin, who is himself inimitable, imitating Sellers.
Clouseau is wrong, and so is Kevin Kline as Inspector Dreyfus, the role that Herbert Lom made into a smoldering slow burn. Kline and Martin both wear the costumes and try the bad French accents, but it's like the high school production of something you saw at Steppenwolf, with the most gifted students in drama class playing the John Malkovich and Joan Allen roles. Within 30 seconds after Kline appeared on the screen, I was remembering the Kevin Kline Rule from my Little Movie Glossary, which observes that whenever Kline wears a mustache in a movie, he also has a foreign accent. Please do not write in with exceptions.
The movie credits Edwards as one of the sources of the story, which is fair enough, since the movie's ambition is to be precisely in the tradition of the Pink Panther movies. It's a prequel, taking place before "The Pink Panther" (1963), and showing Clouseau plucked from obscurity for his first big case. The French soccer coach has been murdered on the field in view of countless cheering fans, and the Pink Panther diamond has been stolen at the same time. The pressure is on Dreyfus to solve the case. His inspiration: Find the most incompetent inspector in France, announce his appointment, and use him as a decoy while the real investigation goes on secretly.
Clouseau of course qualifies as spectacularly incompetent, and his first meeting with Dreyfus begins unpromisingly when he succeeds in piercing the chief inspector's flesh with the pin on his badge. Clouseau is assigned Ponton (Jean Reno), an experienced gendarme, as his minder. Reno survives the movie by dialing down.