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'Short Circuit 2' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 06, 1988

Did you ever think you'd feel like hugging an ashcan? Or look deeply into the baby blue headlights of a robot and see, well, its soul?

That lovable bucket of bolts Number Five is alive and making sequels. Basically he's E.T. on AC/DC, and he's animated as ever in "Short Circuit 2," an amiable follow-up to the 1986 adventure. Struck by lightning in the original, the onetime warrior robot reprogrammed himself and went AWOL with a pair of Earth Shoe types (Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy). Now he's an adolescent, bursting with battery acid and megabytes -- the boy robot comes of age in this cute but dopey comedy.

Neither Guttenberg nor Sheedy would sequelize (which is just as well), but Fisher Stevens reprises the role of Ben Jahrvi, Five's malaprop-dropping coinventor. Since we saw him last, the East Indian roboticist has moved to the city, where he lives in a truck and peddles toy Number Fives on the streets. ("Oooh, it's me. Isn't that special?" says the Real Thing.) Then one day a desperate toy buyer, Sandy (Cynthia Gibb), offers him $50,000 if he can make a thousand baby 'bots real fast. Fred (Michael McKean), a street hustler who overhears the transaction, appoints himself Ben's business partner and finances the operation through a loan shark. "You borrowed money from a fish?" Ben asks in his wry fashion.

Last time, Five was coming to terms with his destructive capabilities and writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock were tackling such lofty issues as world peace. (In fact, they were taking an extension course in screenwriting and turned their homework into a major motion picture.) Here, the goals are less lofty -- as Five pursues a promising career in toy manufacturing and contends with corruption in a generic American metropolis (actually Toronto).

Five -- who now calls himself Johnny Five -- has gobbled up two years worth of "input-input-input," but he is as wide-eyed as ever. Sweeter than the Love Bug, smarter than Lassie and more persistent than the Terminator, Johnny Five is the Everyman of anthropomorphs. Even when his chips are down, you can count on him. He learned to talk -- like Daryl Hannah in "Splash," by watching TV -- and his speech is a pop patois of Crazy Eddie commercials, "Saturday Night Live" catch phrases and John Wayne machismo. Five's star turn includes comic salutes to R2D2, C-3PO and the Road Warrior.

However, he and Ben, a cross between Gandhi and Gracie Allen, both feel isolated in a modern humanoid city, given their scrappy individualism. Ben, who is studying to become an American, is clearly an outsider from the minute he speaks such bent homilies as "You're hitting the nail right between the eyes." Meanwhile, Johnny Five is mistaken for bad modern sculpture, betrayed by a new friend and bamboozled by stereotypical movie Latino hoodlums. And in the ultimate rejection, he is run out of a church on his little rubber treads by a mean-spirited priest. In a poignant interlude, the little metal being is seen reading "Pinocchio."

He's got our sympathy, all right. And Kenneth Johnson, who takes over for John Badham in the director's chair, manipulates the audience into a sniffling mob. This is his first feature film, but he has had plenty of experience with other life forms on TV, especially with his series "V." Johnson pulls heartstrings with the best of them -- or the worst, if you hate that sort of thing.

"Short Circuit 2" is unabashedly mawkish and sophomoric, and the actors support the technology. But if you're a kid, or an adult with an Erector Set, you might just enjoy this summer-weight caper.

"Short Circuit 2" is rated PG because of some scary stuff that happens to Number Five.

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