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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Hangover II' just more of the first

Special Photo: Warner Bros. Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms star in "The Hangover Part II"

Special Photo: Warner Bros. Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms star in "The Hangover Part II"

The Hangover Part II (R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

If you loved the first "Hangover" and don't mind extreme repetition, there's no reason you won't like "The Hangover Part II" -- it's the exact same movie with a different location.

Insider dope revealed a while ago that director Todd Phillips chose to include "Part II" in the title instead of the usual "2" because this movie was going to be like "The Godfather Part II" -- darker, grittier, more depraved and a tad more unhinged than the first. It is certainly all of those things, but what Phillips maybe didn't take into account was that "The Godfather Part II" bore little in common with its predecessor either in content or structure.

Phillips and Warner Bros. should have titled this movie "The Hangover 2.0." It's as if screenwriters Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong simply downloaded "The Hangover" script, added as few new twists as possible and had the main characters say the words "before" and "again" a lot. Not in recent memory has a franchise played it this terribly safe -- and unimaginatively so -- with a sequel. It's not even really a sequel; merely just a reimagining or do-over.

This is not to say that "Part II" is without merit. There are plenty of guffaws and gross-out moments to be found during its 102 minutes, even if the majority of them are mere riffs or slight variations on what we've already seen. You'll laugh and cringe, but not as often or with as much intensity. "Part II" will work far better for anyone who missed the first installment, and as sequels go it's still preferable to the majority of most recycled Hollywood product.

Changing the setting from Las Vegas to Thailand makes great sense. It would be hard to find another city in the U.S. more party animal friendly than Vegas and the unknown quotient of the Far East should have provided something special, but it doesn't. Apart from bookend scenes at a fantastically serene, theme-park pastel coastal villa, the remainder takes place in the grimy ghettos and red-light district of Bangkok.

With a mixture of Soviet-era pasty gray concrete squalor and rotting American inner city blithe, this is probably not the Bangkok the Thai travel bureau wants you to see. The movie also makes no effort to hide its disdain for Asians who are likely to rightfully cry foul. In addition to obvious targets (gangsters, strippers and inept police), the filmmakers use broad brush strokes to make left-handed swipes at Asian stereotypes: the disapproving, task-master father, the seen-but-not-heard females, the genius, do-no-wrong perfect son and mute Hindu monks. Only the American-raised Thai bride-to-be comes across as something other than a caricature.

By sticking so close to the original blueprint, "Part II" verges, depending on your perspective, on self parody or flat-out laziness. When it opens with Phil (Bradley Cooper, patented pearly whites, copious chest hair and five o'clock shadow intact) making the same resigned distress call to the same unsuspecting woman, we sigh slightly. A minute later when the scroll reads "one week earlier," we emit a groan. When social misfit Alan (Zack Galifianakis) brings something suspect to a beach campfire that includes the three principals and someone else who will shortly go missing, we slump in our seats.

Again, this isn't a horrible movie by any stretch. Even though Phillips and company follow a formula practically verbatim, it's still a great formula -- one that was good enough to secure a Golden Globe nomination and become the highest grossing "R" rated comedy of all time. It also helps that the casting and performances in both outings are superb. Speaking of which ...

Returning as Stu the dentist (also this installment's prospective groom), Atlanta native Ed Helms absolutely owns the movie. Playing Laurel to Galifianakis' Hardy and often out-charming Cooper, Helms is given the most physical comedy duties and the majority of the truly embarrassing scenarios, which he handles flawlessly. Also a part-time musician, Helms is afforded the opportunity to play guitar and sing a song that in addition to being the double-over funniest scene in the movie, is one of the scant few original ones.

Because "The Hangover" was so great, it was able to amass a huge stockpile of good will and future forgiveness, but "Part II" has burned through every last speck of it. The movie itself is akin to the Alan character. It started out disappointing and horrifying us but was able to barely redeem itself in the end. "Part III" (and there certainly will be a "Part III") won't be afforded that same luxury. It will have to start from scratch and wow us out of our socks.

(Warner Bros.)