Arriving a protracted four years plus after its original mined serious B.O. gold, commercially savvy "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" follows the original's blueprint, balances action and comedy routines, and keeps Sandra Bullock front and center as goofball FBI sleuth Gracie Hart. Hart's latest adventure looks assured of solid nine-figure worldwide numbers, which could prompt a third entry for Bullock's franchise.

Arriving a protracted four years plus after its original mined serious B.O. gold, commercially savvy “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous” follows the original’s blueprint, balances action and comedy routines, and keeps Sandra Bullock front and center as goofball FBI sleuth Gracie Hart. As pallid as the first edition’s comedy was, its beauty pageant gimmick had advantages over the new pic’s strained mission in Vegas, which recycles nearly every hackneyed Sin City bit imaginable. Lame and inoffensive, Hart’s latest adventure looks assured of solid nine-figure worldwide numbers, which could prompt a third entry for Bullock’s franchise.

Despite the fame Hart earned from saving the life of Miss United States (Heather Burns’ Cheryl) in first pic, she’s still out in the field as an FBI agent. In action that proceeds opening credits, Hart’s public visibility nearly screws up the arrest of a ring of female bank robbers.

Her boss McDonald (Ernie Hudson) realizes Hart is too recognizable to continue working as a field agent and assigns her to be “the face of the FBI” as part of a PR charm offensive. The need for this is never justified, however, and it plays as a weak gimmick to give Hart’s character a makeover.

The new Hart emerges 10 months later as a spoiled celeb-author promoting her bestseller on the chatshow circuit and trailed by a posse including gay stylist Joel (Diedrich Bader) and a churlish and sour agent/bodyguard with a mean violent streak aptly named — in a joke sure to elude many younger auds — Sam Fuller (Regina King). For a woman who didn’t want to be “the FBI’s Barbie,” Hart appears to enjoy the limelight, but between this unattractive spoof on celebrity and Hart’s tiresomely repetitive run-ins with Fuller, “Armed and Fabulous” seems armed only for self-destruction.

Soon after catching up with Cheryl and affably dumb pageant emcee Stan (William Shatner) on the set of Regis Philbin’s show, Hart learns that Cheryl and Stan have been kidnapped. Myopically assuming that Hart won’t get involved in the FBI’s investigation, McDonald sends Hart and Fuller off on a silly Vegas PR stunt.

With so much strained and unpromising setup material — including the embarrassing spectacle of her chasing and tackling Dolly Parton in the Venetian Hotel — Bullock stays as charming as possible.

Things get a bit more grounded with Treat Williams’ all-business Collins as the bureau’s Vegas topper and Enrique Murciano as Foreman, the agent assigned as Hart’s handler. Of course, as is now the franchise’s formula, it’s the last agent in the world whom anybody takes seriously — namely, Hart — who makes deductive leaps that would daunt the most veteran of Cirque du Soliel acrobats.

Screenwriter Marc Lawrence (one of the original’s three co-writers, credited here solo) has a habit for allowing space for physical antics and then needing to play catch-up in the plot department by having Hart suddenly whirl into action. These repeated mechanics felt tiresome the first time around with director Donald Petrie, and they’re just as tiresome this time with John Pasquin (“Joe Somebody”) at the helm.

But Bullock is game and gives every appearance of having just discovered her character. Though she seems unsure in early reels of how to spoof Hart-as-celebrity (and thus, herself), she regains her grip and her naturally likable instincts as a performer and wins aud’s hearts and minds. A scene where she’s disguised as a retiree gives her a nice theatrical break to try out some comic vocals and behavior, so it’s a pity that it’s nearly ruined by bad makeup.

Her returning support — Hudson, Shatner and Burns — pick up where they left off. Burns, though, is literally tied up most of her screentime and given almost no room to show her comic gifts. King, who appears primed to be Hart’s buddy in a third pic, struggles making her sour demeanor feel more than just sour, while Murciano struggles to make any impression at all.

Production package is a bit more enhanced than original, but not overly so. Credits appear only at the end, and curiously note topline composers Christophe Beck and Randy Edelman with below-the-line “additional music.”

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock presentation in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Fortis Films production. Produced by Sandra Bullock, Marc Lawrence. Executive producers, Mary McLaglen, John Kirby, Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Gesine Bullock-Prado. Directed by John Pasquin. Screenplay, Marc Lawrence, based on characters created by Lawrence, Katie Ford, Caryn Lucas.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Peter Menzies; editor, Garth Craven; additional music, Christophe Beck , Randy Edelman; music supervisor, John Houlihan; production designer, Maher Ahmad; art directors, Andrew Cahn, Greg Richman; set designers, Daniel Jennings, James Tocci; set decorator, Leslie E. Rollins; costume designer, Deena Appel; makeup, Pamela Westmore; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Mark Weingarten; supervising sound editors, Bruce Stambler, Paul Curtis; special effects coordinator, Burt Dalton; visual effects, Pacific Vision Prods.; choreographer, Fatima ; stunt coordinator, Jack Gill; associate producers, Scott Elias; assistant director, K. C. Colwell; casting, Nancy Foy. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, March 16, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Gracie Hart - Sandra Bullock Sam Fuller - Regina King Jeff Foreman - Enrique Murciano Stan Fields - William Shatner McDonald - Ernie Hudson Cheryl - Heather Burns Joel - Diedrich Bader Collins - Treat Williams Lou Steele - Abraham Benrubi Karl Steele - Nick Offerman
With: Eileen Brennan, Elisabeth Rohm, Molly Gottlieb, Regis Philbin, Joy Philbin, Marcelo Tubert, Stephen Tobolowsky, Dolly Parton.

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