After all the other long-deferred sequels that have come and gone this year (“Zoolander 2,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Snore of Destiny” or whatever), “Barbershop: The Next Cut” can’t help but feel like a model of form, durability and purpose. That’s not bad for what is essentially a serving of warmed-over cinematic comfort food — then again, comfort may be the wrong word in light of all the violence erupting outside this longtime Chicago neighborhood hangout, the bullets flying almost as quickly as the ever-spirited verbal volleys hurled by Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer and a fresh cast of coed cutters and stylists. Blending real-world topicality and battle-of-the-sexes playfulness in a way that may remind some of Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” but in a much more familiar and crowd-pleasing franchise mold, this overly earnest but not-unwelcome third entry should land in the same double-digit domestic B.O. bracket as its 2002 and 2004 predecessors.
As functionally directed by Malcolm D. Lee (of “The Best Man” movies), “Barbershop: The Next Cut” retains the lively yet stagebound feel of its workplace-comedy predecessors (including 2005’s Queen Latifah-starring spinoff, “Beauty Shop”). Despite the occasional cutaways to homes, schools and other outside locations, the movie derives its energy almost entirely from the bristling quality of the dialogue and the easy ensemble flow of the performances; it’s no knock to note that we could at times be watching a play — or, for that matter, a TV series, not unlike the short-lived “Barbershop” sitcom that starred Omar Gooding in the Ice Cube role.
Twelve years after we last saw him, Cube’s gruff, good-hearted Calvin Palmer now shares his South Side establishment with a beauty salon operated by his business partner, Angie (Regina Hall) — a necessary cost-cutting measure that has altered the dynamics of the place considerably. Once a neighborhood refuge where a guy could say whatever he pleased in the company of other brothers, the barbershop has since become ground zero in a playful, ongoing gender war, where the women routinely deflate the men’s sexual boasts and the men mock the women for spending so much money on their weaves. The beautification of women, of course, has always been a costly but mutually satisfying arrangement: “Men are visual,” one barber notes, and the movie duly proves the point — and backslaps its primary audience — by subjecting several of the actresses to ogle-cam closeups.
The witty dissection of sexual and relational mores has long been a staple of the franchise, and much of the movie hinges on a predictably soapy turn involving longtime haircutter Terri (Eve) and her barber husband, Rashad (Common, solid if stolid), who becomes the object of an attempted seduction by another co-worker, Draya (Nicki Minaj, pouty perfection). Carrying on an altogether subtler flirtation are Jerrod (Lamorne Morris), who’s nerdy, sensitive and tired of being mistaken for gay, and Bree (Margot Bingham), an underwritten character who shares Jerrod’s penchant for the road less traveled and the booty less tapped.
But “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” as written by Kenya Barris (“Black-ish”) and Tracy Oliver, also has graver matters on its mind. With black-on-black violence continually on the rise and news of a gang shooting in the vicinity almost every day, much of the banter, wild and free-flowing as it is, feels more sobering and instructive than usual. The irreverent glee with which Cedric the Entertainer once dropped a line like “F—k Jesse Jackson!” has been tempered by a more respectful, less provocative impulse, perhaps signaled by the visible graying and receding of the still-energetic actor’s mop.
The names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice are dropped with dutiful solemnity, and while there is an obligatory jab at Bill Cosby and one saucy POTUS-themed punchline (“Barack has definitely got bitches”), the script also veers into a more pointed debate about whether the nation’s first black commander-in-chief has done enough to address the persecutions of the African-American community. It’s a measure of the movie’s generosity of spirit that the definition of that community is elastic enough to include a white ex-barber, Isaac (series regular Troy Garity, back for a short scene), as well as an Indian-American cutter named Raja (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s accepted as an honorary brother even if he does vote Republican.
The story here involves politics on a more local scale. Another ex-barber, the upwardly mobile Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), stops by to inform everyone of a bill that, if passed, would call for the closure of several South Side streets — an attempt to contain the ongoing violence that would also have a crippling effect on the business. It wouldn’t be a “Barbershop” movie, of course, if the salon didn’t come under threat, and Calvin and company quickly spring into action, offering free haircuts during a weekend-long, hashtag-friendly “ceasefire” that will hopefully re-establish the barbershop as an oasis of peace and community. As contrived plot turns go, it’s much more involving than the plight of Calvin’s adolescent son, Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.) — who, partly under the questionable influence of Rashad’s son, Kenny (Diallo Thompson), is about to be initiated into a gang.
The ensuing scenes of domestic father-son conflict — and one egregiously manipulative bit involving an innocent young bystander — are the picture’s most melodramatic and least convincing, not least because they steer this raucous, sentimental neighborhood comedy in the wearying direction of an Afterschool Special. Granted, the underlying thrust of the “Barbershop” movies has always been educational: These films may provide black viewers with a necessary measure of affirmation, identification and catharsis, but for the rest of us, they can open a mainstream-friendly window into different ways of seeing and, more importantly, hearing one another. Still, it’s easier to absorb ideas that are being hurled across a crowded public arena, rather than being delivered sternly from a lectern. Father Calvin may indeed know best, but in those moments, it’s not just Jalen who may feel like he’s being treated like a child; when the kid finally gets his dreadlocks trimmed — well, let’s just say the concept of an upbraiding has never seemed more literal.