Directed by David Kellogg

Jul 21, 1999 at 4:00 am

If you plan to park your kids in front of Inspector Gadget for 80 minutes, have at it. The film is terrible, drab, spiritless and empty, but it's also harmless enough. Sure, it's full of anarchic, slapstick violence, and it encourages the belief that if you stuff a trench coat with enough household implements you can survive a fall from a skyscraper, but most kids worth their salt don't need a movie to tell them that. And, above all, there's nothing sexual about it. So the kiddies are safe.

For the sake of those who didn't camp out for weeks in advance in front of the box office in order to get opening-day tickets for Inspector Gadget, a bit of background may be in order. The film is a live-action version of a syndicated TV cartoon that was produced from 1983-1985 and returned as a holiday special, Inspector Gadget Saves Christmas, on NBC in 1992.

The title flatfoot was a sort of human Swiss-army knife. Under his trench coat and brimmed hat, he concealed all manner of crime-busting gizmos. The cartoon, in turn, was largely derivative of Get Smart! — the great gadget-laden live-action spy spoof of the '60s, and Don Adams even lent his unmistakable Maxwell Smart voice to the Inspector.

In the film, the title role is played by Matthew Broderick, whose sheepish, unassuming tones are about as perfectly opposite of the confident nasal blare of Don Adams as you could get. In this version, our hero is a security guard with a case of the wannabe-cop blues and also a single parent to his niece (Michelle Trachtenberg). One night, while attempting to chase down the baddies who have murdered a scientist and stolen robotic secrets from the plant he's guarding, the unfortunate rent-a-cop is horribly maimed.

He's reassembled, though, by the pretty daughter (Joely Fisher) of the murdered scientist. Many of his appendages have been replaced by gadgetry, which he can summon with the incantation "Go, go, gadget," followed by whatever item — foot spring, helicopter rotor, Pez dispenser — he needs. He's a comic Robocop. He also has a Gadgetmobile, who sasses him in the nutty voice of comic D.L. Hughley.

The villainous supergenius Claw, played by a slumming, elegant-looking Rupert Everett, whips up an evil Inspector — a replica, exact save for huge square teeth, who tramps around the city using his gadget powers for evil instead of niceness. In case you were wondering, the good and evil versions of Gadget do face off and have a big showdown at the climax.

Though most feature knockoffs of retro TV shows range from mediocre to dismal — given the choice, I think I'd rather sit through Inspector Gadget again than the new Wild Wild West — at least you can see why they were made. If no one would suggest that series like The Wild, Wild West, The Mod Squad, Car 54, Where Are You?, My Favorite Martian or The Beverly Hillbillies were abiding works of the human spirit — well, maybe a case could be made for The Beverly Hillbillies, but not for the others — they were still generally shows for which genuine affection is possible. But are there really legions of post-boomers out there sighing nostalgically over the happy hours they spent watching Inspector Gadget?

The movie of Inspector Gadget probably happened now simply because it could. Other attempts to add two dimensions to cartoon characters, like Robert Altman's Popeye or Stanley Tong's Mr. Magoo, have failed, but both of these were low-tech in approach. It was the Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask that proved that, with advances in computer animation, cartoon-style visual comedy could now be pulled off successfully in live-action movies.

The trouble is that the gags still have to be funny and imaginative, and Inspector Gadget's aren't. About the minimum we might reasonably expect from this film is that we'd see evil foiled through some elaborate Rube Goldberg shticks. But the only time that director David Kellogg shows any flair of this sort is in a dream sequence near the beginning, in which a pre-Gadget Broderick imagines himself saving the day when a runaway school bus is in danger of mowing down a small dog. It's a shame that more of the movie doesn't have the wacky feel of this scene.

A few of the actors try to help — Andy Dick as Claw's spacey lab assistant; Cheri Oteri doing her aggressively prim routine as the mayor — but they aren't given enough space and time to really get much rolling. As for Broderick, he'd better be careful — after this film and Godzilla, he could become typed as the mellow human center of overproduced special-effects contraptions. Considering the enormous promise of his start in movies, it would be a bitter fate.

Opens July 23.