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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When I first heard there was going to be a sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, my initial reaction was, Huh? Although I was a big fan of the original, it only made about $18 million at the box office - not exactly the kind of blockbuster number that suggests a sequel. But the film found a massive and passionate audience on DVD, and given the current hotness of raunchy, R-rated comedies, a follow-up was born.

Picking up immediately after the original left off, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay finds our resident stoners (John Cho and Kal Penn, respectively) bound for Amsterdam, home of all the legal weed they can smoke. On the flight over, they are mistaken for terrorists, and Kumar's bong is assumed to be a bomb. A moronic Homeland Security agent named Ron Fox (Rob Corddry) orders them sent to "Gitmo" where they are subjected to a form of torture best left unprinted here. Somehow they manage to escape, then work their way toward Texas to find Kumar's ex-girlfriend, whose fiancée may be able to help them.

As they did on their sojourn to White Castle, Harold and Kumar encounter a variety of bizarre situations. One of the funniest comes when they are invited home by a redneck Alabama hunter, whose dilapidated shack proves to be surprisingly deceptive-looking. The boys are also reunited with their old pal Neil Patrick Harris (Neil Patrick Harris). Fox, meanwhile, continues to pursue them with the intention of returning them to prison.

For the first 15 minutes or so, I wasn't sure that I was going to like Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Despite all the wacky situations, the original was pretty straightforward: two stoned dudes go out in search of munchies. The sequel, on the other hand, starts off broader and more exaggerated. The whole thing seemed like it might lose the simple charm that made the first one so appealing. It quickly finds its footing, though. While the movie is without a doubt working on a larger canvass than its predecessor, the filmmakers (Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also wrote the original) do a very smart thing: instead of repeating themselves, they figure out how to apply their premise to a new scenario.

White Castle worked because, underneath the humor, the story commented on race. Asian and Indian actors are often cast as sidekicks or comic relief. Harold and Kumar were the leads of their story, and the film satirized the way people in our culture respond to - and sometimes perpetuate - stereotypes. Guantanamo Bay keeps the idea of stereotypes but transposes it to the wider topic of our terrorism-conscious, post-9/11 world. It's a sad truth that some folks look at anyone who even remotely resembles a Middle Easterner with suspicion. It's also true that paranoia has been fostered because of that bias. A sense of over-cautiousness sometimes causes innocent people to be mislabeled.

As I watched Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, I kept marveling at how ballsy it was. The movie finds much humor in the way the boys constantly try to disprove the very circumstantial evidence that suggests they are terrorists. The Homeland Security agent is portrayed as being over-eager. Having dedicated himself to the War on Terror, Fox would rather air on the side of caution; sure, Harold and Kumar appear to be nothing more than a couple of stoners, but as far as he's concerned, North Korea and Al Qaeda are working together. Under that definition, he's free to do whatever he wants to "protect" the United States. (At one point, he literally wipes his ass with a copy of the Bill of Rights.) Whether you laugh at this kind of thing ultimately depends on whether you think there's any possible humor in the subject matter. Personally, I've always agreed with George Carlin that anything can be funny, depending on how you approach it. The screenplay is irreverent without ever being disrespectful.

How appropriate, too, that the film concludes with the terrorism suspects coming face-to-face with George W. Bush. Lest you think this is some kind of liberal message screed, be aware that the movie has a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward Bush. There's even a nice little patriotic message buried underneath what is certainly the outrageous high (pun intended) point of the story.

John Cho and Kal Penn are again great in their roles, bringing the duo a lot of charm and chemistry. It's also fun to again see Neil Patrick Harris sending up his own image. This guy is game for anything, which makes for some great comedy. The humor is extremely raunchy, easily earning its hard-R rating. The biggest laughs for me were a T-shirt one supporting character wears during a Homeland Security interrogation (too filthy to print here), an obscure reference to the Neil Patrick Harris/Whoopi Goldberg movie Clara's Heart, and our heroes' insane trip to a brothel.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may infuriate some audience members, for whom terrorism is off-limits in a comedy. Yet perceptive viewers will realize that the movie is not mining laughs from terrorism at all; it is using humor to suggest that paranoia is our own worst enemy. Yes, vigilance is good, but if we start throwing labels around too haphazardly, it will only decrease our ability to recognize a genuine threat. Isn't it amazing that a "stoner comedy" could be so profound?

( out of four)

DVD Features:

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay will be on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 29. The DVD release comes in both widescreen and fullscreen formats, while the Blu-Ray is widescreen only. Also available, and recommended, is the unrated 2-disc special edition DVD/Blu-Ray, which hits stores on the same date. The unrated movie is seven minutes longer and contains additional footage, some of which was too raunchy for the theatrical version.

The bonus features on the 2-disc set are impressive. There is a full-length audio commentary from the stars and directors. What's great is that they don't just do a jokey commentary; there's actually some substance here. John Cho, for instance, talks about his worries that Asian women will be offended that the rare Asian male lead goes for a non-Asian woman in both pictures. This leads into Kal Penn talking about the catch-22 that arises from trying to please an audience versus trying to do what's right for the film.

Also included are 27 deleted scenes. (You read that right - 27 more scenes!) Some of the scenes are longer or alternate versions of what's already in the film, such as Penn doing a variety of different takes of the moment where a female passenger envisions him as a terrorist. Other scenes were cut entirely from the film. Unlike a lot of DVD deleted scenes, many of these are actually very good. One of them - in which Harold sings in the shower - reveals that Cho has a surprisingly decent singing voice, and it also includes a funny reference to the "MILF guy" he played so memorably in American Pie. Also found in this section are several different versions of a scene in which Neil Patrick Harris visits a brothel. Do I even need to say that this is comedy gold?

The 30-minute documentary "Inside the World of Harold and Kumar" features interviews with everyone involved in making the movie. What's most noticable here is that the chemistry between Cho and Penn is just as strong off-camera as it is on. They jovially kid each other while talking about the charms of their newfound franchise.

The 2-disc set additionally includes a digital copy of the film as well as a "Bush PSA" in which the actor who played George W. Bush tells audiences why they should see Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. It's hilarious because the actor's impression is dead-on.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is "Dude, Change the Movie." In this interactive feature, you watch the movie and, at various points, an options menu comes up on screen. Using your remote control, you can decide what happens next. For example, during the duo's plane ride to Amsterdam, you can decide whether or not Kumar tries to smoke his bong mid-flight. The overall course of the story doesn't change, but little details do. It's a fun feature that adds some extra replay value to the DVD.

It is perhaps no coincidence that another sequel was announced just as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is released on DVD. I'm not sure where the characters will go from here, but I do know that this adventure made me laugh, and the DVD is chock full of quality bonus material that will please fans of the series.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is rated R for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

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