The world has changed at such a bewildering pace since the first Barbershop movie premiered in 2002 - did they have the Internet back then? - that it's comforting to know Calvin Palmer Jr. is still cutting hair in the barbershop he inherited from his pops on the South Side of Chicago.

Yep, Ice Cube is back as the beloved Chi-town barber in Barbershop: The Next Cut, a new installment in the always welcome, heartwarming comedy series that balances derriere jokes, sight gags, music, and dancing with a socially conscious - and outspokenly liberal - message about the joys and challenges of life in African American communities.

Confined for the most part to a single set and composed of simple plot lines, the Barbershop films succeed with solid characters and snappy, clever dialogue, along with heartfelt sentiment.

Last, and certainly not least, there's the sin factor. The films feature some of showbiz's hottest stars draped in fetching and/or criminally skimpy outfits while engaged in suggestive dialogue and situations.

The Barbershop movies live and die by their terrific ensemble casts. The Next Cut features returning stars Eve, Sean Patrick Thomas, Troy Garity, and Cedric the Entertainer, who is electric as the crotchety elder statesman Eddie.

Newcomers include Regina Hall as Calvin's new business partner, Common as his best friend and Eve's new husband, and Nicki Minaj as the woman who tries to bed him - an aggressive, husband-stealing stylist whose opinions about sexual politics are as in-your-face as her bionic décolletage.

They congregate at the barbershop, where they discuss their personal problems or argue about the state of the Chicago Bulls, the state of gender roles in African American families, or the state of Illinois.

Recipes are traded, along with morsels of wisdom about health care and bon mots about the best sexual positions. A heated fight over the economy morphs into an even angrier confrontation about the efforts of America's first black president to ameliorate the legacy of slavery in America.

The Next Cut focuses most of its attention on the devastating effects of gang violence on the South Side, an issue that directly affects Calvin and his BFF Rashad, both of whom are raising teenage sons.

How can ordinary people make a difference, asks Calvin, when politicians and business leaders have been powerless to fix things?

Calvin and his pals have a sit-down with the leaders of the South Side's two biggest gangs to ask for a 48-hour cease-fire. It works! It seems Marquis (Notorious' Jamal Woolard) and Jay (Renell Gibbs), who are easily the two most dangerous thugs around, love their barber so much that they agree to play nice for a weekend. In exchange, the shop offers free haircuts to all comers.

(Yes, the Barbershop franchise seriously simplifies the issues, but it remains one of very few pop-culture venues outside of rap music where these problems are discussed.)

Word gets out, and Calvin's experiment attracts TV reporters and local celebs. There are smiles, there are tears, there's good will.

But behind the scenes, there's evil: The gangs continue an aggressive recruitment drive aimed at Calvin's son Jalen (Michael Rainey Jr.). So there also are a few shudders.

The weight of the picture's moral and political message rests on Ice Cube's Calvin. A decent, honest man with a well-developed sense of responsibility and a passion for social justice, he's an iconic American type - the reluctant hero. He'd rather tend to his own garden, but when called to duty, he's all in.

Barbershop: The Next Cut ends with an inspiring call to individual action. But as Calvin concedes, the problems he faces are so entrenched, so systemic, so complex, there is very little any one person can do to make a real difference.

I'm grateful for the ambivalence: Instead of offering easy answers, Barbershop: The Next Cut raises important, difficult, and timely questions.


Barbershop: The Next Cut
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee. With Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, Regina Hall, Common, Eve, Nicki Minaj, Anthony Anderson. Distributed by New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sexual content and profanity).
Playing at: Area theaters.