Inspector Gadget is an almost-human Swiss Army knife in a trench coat. He comes equipped with so many gizmos and whatchamacallits he doesn’t even need to be a character. What a wonderful break from acting this was for Matthew Broderick, whose triple role as Inspector Gadget, his nemesis RoboGadget and the hatchback-driving security guard John Brown is less challenging than the computer’s part in War Games.

After being blown-up in a car chase, the badly injured Brown becomes the unconscious subject of "The Gadget Project," headed by the beautiful scientist Dr. Brenda Bradford (Joely Fisher), a woman who balances her intellect with just enough cleavage to make her the object of man’s desire. The goal of the project is to create a computerized, bionic police officer who makes Steve Austin seem about as useful as a department store mannequin. Brown wakes up as Gadget, picks up Volume 1 of his massive operating manual, dons his detective outfit and reports for duty at the Riverton Police Department.

Gadget’s mission is to capture Sanford Scolex (Rupert Everett), a svelte, diabolical scientist whose major preoccupations are dieting and creating an army of androids for world war. The stunts are more predictable than funny, the plot more mundane than whimsical, and it all ends with a great big clank.

Broderick is one of those cursed actors whose great talent is rarely showcased by the incompatible roles he plays. He’s a brainy, cute guy who makes a terrible Inspector Gadget for the same reasons he made a great Ferris Bueller. His capacity for comedy is large, but it runs on subtlety, not on cartoon gags like squirting toothpaste from his abdomen or skating his way through the laboratory of an evil scientist. The high-tech slapstick that worked for the naturally wacky Jim Carrey in The Mask seems like mission impossible for Broderick.

Of course, despite its lack of substance, Inspector Gadget does highlight our late-20th century flair for deconstructing the great American superhero into an incompetent, bumbling pile of microchips, bells and whistles. And at the same time, it elevates human beings (Dr. Bradford and her tragically deceased genius father) to their proper position atop an ever-lengthening food chain of artificial intelligence.

In these days of computers and cloning, who needs Supermen falling from the skies? Humans can almost realize their greatest comic book fantasies through technology. Now, if only they could make movies that live up to their special effects.

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