Posts Tagged ‘Johnny English Reborn’

Every now and then, for no reason I can really discern, we tend to get a bunch of films with roughly the same subject matter coming out at around the same time. Nearly twenty years ago, for instance, there were a handful of Christopher Columbus biopics (though in that case it was sort of understandable, given the date), while Hollywood has also doubled up when it comes to releasing films about Robin Hood, volcanoes, and giant asteroid impacts threatening the earth. At the moment we’re coming to the end of a bit of a spy cluster: with Tomas Alfredson’s le Carre adaptation occupying the critical high ground, and The Debt offering perhaps the most accessible and involving story. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a spy movie you can watch with the kids and not have to worry about paying the slightest bit of attention to, there’s always Johnny English Reborn, directed by Oliver Parker (whom I had pegged as a bonnet opera/Oscar Wilde adaptation specialist, but there you go).

This is, of course, a star vehicle for Rowan Atkinson, allowing him to reprise his role as the hapless secret agent from a load of credit card commercials and 2003’s original Johnny English. As the film opens our hero is in exile following a disastrous assignment some years previously, but circumstances demand his recall. Intelligence has been received that an attempt will be made on the life of the Chinese Premier during a meeting with the British Prime Minister, and so the head of MI7 (Gillian Anderson) packs English off to Hong Kong to investigate. There he encounters CIA agent Titus Fisher (Richard Schiff, really briefly), and…

…you know, I don’t think there’s much point going into the plot in too much detail. You’re probably not that interested, and, anyway, it manages at the same time to be predictable, convoluted, and completely superfluous. Every time some serious exposition has to be laid in (always by one of the other performers), Atkinson will start falling over or gurning or messing about, almost as if the movie is afraid that people will forget it’s supposed to be a comedy. This seems to me to be wholly misconceived – it’s perfectly possible to make a brilliant comedy with a strong plot and some touches of darkness (for instance, Some Like It Hot or the original Ladykillers).

But instead we get an awful lot of Atkinson being pompous, pulling faces, and falling over, with the rest of a rather good cast (Anderson, Schiff, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Pik-Sen Lim) required to play it as straight as they can manage in the background. The only other person who gets a chance to be properly funny is Daniel Kaluuya as Atkinson’s sidekick.

As you can probably tell, the word Reborn in the title is pushing it a bit – Johnny English Rehashed would have been more honest. This is more broad, farcical, knockabout fun, marginally darker in tone than the first movie. It’s still pitching to the huge international audience Atkinson established playing the clownish Mr Bean, rather than the UK following he built up playing the much more acerbic and interesting Blackadder character. There is a section near the beginning of this film where he is (briefly) allowed to be sardonic and capable, and outwit his opponents, and it’s refreshingly different and no less amusing than the rest of the film: but it’s not sustained. The film goes for the easy option and the rewards are less as a result.

And along the way it makes the common mistake of believing that Bond Movies Are Easy To Parody. They’re really, really not – parody is all about making the serious look ridiculous, and the Bond films are always so close to seeming ridiculous that it’s hard to go beyond them without simply becoming silly. This movie crosses the line into silliness more often than it should.

One of the strengths of the first film is that it didn’t try too hard on this score, and just concentrated on being a comedy. Here, the desire to spoof Bond seems much stronger – ex-Bond girl Pike is prominent, Anderson’s character hits the same notes as Judi Dench’s M, and there’s a sequence attempting to parody the Bond-visits-the-gadget-department staple – how can you parody something which was almost always played for laughs anyway? Answers on a postcard please. It’s all a bit baffling as even the Bond movies themselves, in their current joy-averse incarnation, don’t look like this any more.

I have been almost wholly negative so far but I feel I ought to say that this film is not a complete waste of time and money. Atkinson is simply incapable of not being funny for too long, and there are some great pieces of physical comedy and other sight gags. I thought it was generally quite amusing: too silly and lightweight to be really satisfying as a film, but not awful by any means (and other people at the viewing I attended were laughing much, much more than I was). But considering the time, money, and talent involved, the returns – as far as entertainment is concerned – are not that impressive. New character next time, please, Rowan.

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