Any time a movie has the guts to charge out of the gate declaring that the D.C. sniper was "the Jackie Robinson of crime," you know you're in for a good time. Yes, furiously opinionated barber Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) is at it again, blasting away at sacred cows with an unrepentant bravado that helps make this sequel a more-than-worthy successor to 2002's uneven but heartfelt ensemble comedy.
In fact, it's a serious improvement. Less reliant on slapstick than the original, "Barbershop 2" uses our already-earned affection for the denizens of its Chicago headcuttery to explore new avenues of socially engaged sass. The villain this time is rampant gentrification, as beleaguered shop owner Calvin (Ice Cube) fends off a shady urban-renewal project that's putting a high-gloss hairstyling chain right across the street from his humble establishment. Before the movie is over, Cal will try every idea he can think of to fend off the threat, but his first impulse is to host a simple customer-appreciation day, and that profoundly generous vibe is what carries the film from one scripted episode to the next.
Caught up in a climate that's newly competitive -- both onscreen and off -- each individual stylist nonetheless gets to enjoy a storyline of his or her own. Fans of rapper/actress Eve, for instance, will be relieved to learn that her participation hasn't been crowded out by the arrival of Queen Latifah as a beauty-shop owner whose dishy dive is sort of an estrogen-fueled analogue to Cal's. At times, our visits to the place feel like glorified trailers for Latifah's upcoming spin-off movie (entitled -- what else? -- "Beauty Shop"), but even the plot threads that don't go anywhere in particular in "Barbershop 2" are so full of homey charm that you hardly care.
The best addition is a series of flashbacks that flesh out the Eddie character, showing how he stumbled upon the south-side neighborhood in the late '60s,what's been driving him ever since and why his rent-free chair at the barbershop is never in jeopardy. It's a sweet, well-told story, as richly emblematic of that old warhorse "black pride" as is Cal's more modern quest to keep his environment pure. Yet the film knows just when to pull back from the kind of Capra-aping smarm that felled crap like "The Majestic," making it a standard-bearer of sentiment without sellout. If it's not the Jackie Robinson of inner-city comedies, it's at least the Barry Bonds. Eddie, opinions?