THE HANGOVER PART II
There's something charming about director Todd Phillips & Co.'s refusal to mess with the Hangover formula in their follow-up to the 2009 hit. Beat by beat, structural grace note by structural grace note, The Hangover Part II follows the path of the first one. Both films open with an impending wedding interrupted by a phone call: On the horn, Phil (Bradley Cooper), blood-flecked, bleary-eyed and covered in grime, explains that something has gone horribly wrong; then we flash back to the events leading up to said phone call, which involve Phil and his buddies Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) getting inadvertently blitzed, blacking out and waking up to a trashed hotel room, some kind of exotic animal (a tiger in the first film, a monkey in this one) and a missing friend (the groom in the first film, the bride's younger brother in this one). The rest of the film involves them trying to piece together the happenings of their wild and crazy night in an attempt to locate their friend. Lather, rinse, repeat.
One can't quite fault this lack of imagination, because the structure is precisely what made The Hangover work so well. It was never about the jokes, really. (I laughed very hard at the first film but can remember very few genuine laugh-out-loud gags.) Rather, the Hangover films use the framework of a mystery thriller to create a kind of propulsive comic arc of discovery. The characters are lost and so are we; there's genuine danger and uncertainty here, capped off by a final revelation that's as intricate as anything Agatha Christie ever put together. In other words, it's funny because it's kind of scary.
Whenever the new film does up the ante, curiously, it tends to falter. Galifianakis' character, a lovably strange introvert in the first film, seems more like a mental jerkoff this time around, and attempts to portray Bangkok as a more insane place than Vegas never quite ring true, because the film does so little to give us a sense of location. Mostly, though, the movie works. Phillips' directorial style has always had a nice sheen to it: His compositions are exact, his camera moves are confident, and his cutting is rhythmic and precise. The actors are gradually becoming identified with their roles, with Helms' earnest weenie character as compelling a comic creation as Galifianakis' more pronounced weirdo. Can we hope that the next film (and there surely will be another) will put The Wolfpack in a more unique situation? Don't bet on it — for better and for worse. (Opens Thursday) — BILGE EBIRI
KUNG FU PANDA 2
It's not often that a computer-animated feature aimed at kids reminds you that maybe it's time to stop holding on to past baggage and get your damn act together. But what's most surprising is that the computer-animated feature in question is not a Disney/Pixar flick. With the release of Kung Fu Panda 2, DreamWorks Animation's panda-powered martial-arts tentpole proves to be the most entertaining and rewarding of its cartoon franchises. (O Shrek, how you disappointed us!)
The second installment has Jack Black's affable butt-kicking panda now leading the menagerie of kung-fu crusaders known as the Furious Five (whose roster, sadly enough, doesn't include Grandmaster Flash). His objective this time is to stop a vengeful, sinister peacock (voiced by Gary Oldman, of course) from taking over China with destructive weaponry and obliterating kung fu. Of equal importance, however, is his attempt to obtain inner peace once he learns the painful truth of his origins.
Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and other A-list voices from the first movie return, supplemented by welcome newcomers such as Jean-Claude Van Damme. But the stars are upstaged by the eye-popping fight sequences, which provided the highlights of the first film. They're dizzyingly Rube Goldbergian in their graphic execution, and they serve the story's darker elements well, presumably implemented by credited creative consultant Guillermo del Toro (!). The chopsocky delirium will have kids sending their gummy bears airborne in delight, while adults will most likely wonder how they can also get some of that inner peace. Good luck with that. (Opens Thursday) — CRAIG D. LINDSEY