Latest 'Atlas Shrugged' has little new but the cast

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The second installment of the "Atlas Shrugged" trilogy picks up, of course, where the first one ended. Yet "Part II" is more of a restart than a continuation, with a new director and an all-new cast. The thing that remains, alas, is the hallowed text: Ayn Rand's bloated 1957 novel about a future in which the really worthwhile people withdraw from a world threatened by "the looters."

The movie opens in "Star Wars" mode, as one jet chases another. At the controls of the pursuing starfighter is our heroine, Dagny Taggert (Samantha Mathis), a feisty executive at a nationwide (but privately owned) railroad. She's hellbent on learning why clever people are vanishing, apparently at the behest of someone named John Galt.

This scene turns out to be a teaser of the movie's end; the rest of the story is a long flashback. The jet sequence introduces director John Putch's strategy for making "Part II" brisker than its money-losing predecessor: motion.

We occasionally glimpse the downtime of Taggert and her ally and lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe). But usually they're on the move, striding purposefully through a nation threatened by its misguided leaders. (The decisive but foolish bureaucracy seems more akin to Stalin's Soviet Union than today's gridlocked U.S. government; Rand was a refugee from 1920s Leningrad.)

The faster pace, livelier cast and improved production values make "Part II" less of a slog than the first movie. But there's only so much the filmmakers can do with the novel's antiquated story and didactic dialogue. Many of the scenes devolve into lectures on the greatness of, well, being great. And no actor could appear plausible while eyeing the camera and mouthing the tale's refrain, "Who is John Galt?"

Set in the near future, the movie attempts to look modern with smartphones, tablet computers and large flat-screen displays. Yet the scripters can't escape that Rand's scenario turns on steel and railroads, industries that haven't driven the American economy for decades. It doesn't help that nobody associated with the movie seems to know the first thing about contemporary rail travel. In one hilarious sequence, a high-speed train breaks down, and an ingenious employee gets it moving again by attaching an ancient steam engine. They might as well have sent in a brace of oxen.

Equally amusing is the scene in which a government meanie blackmails the chivalrous but married Hank, threatening to ruin Dagny by releasing photos of them together — hugging and holding hands. Seriously? wouldn't pay $5 for such tame shots.

"Atlas Shrugged: Part II" means to warn viewers about this country's perilous future. But everything about it screams mid-20th century. Rather than refresh the cast with new actors, the producers would have done better to just digitally reanimate Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper, the stars of the 1949 adaptation of Rand's The Fountainhead. —

'Atlas Shrugged: Part II'

Continuation of trilogy is amusing — for all the wrong reasons.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Now playing.

Rating • PG-13 for mild profanity and milder sexuality.

Running time • 112 minutes.