Posts Tagged ‘Johnny English’

It is with an appropriate sense of dutiful resignation that I find myself turning my attention to David Kerr’s Johnny English Strikes Again, a third outing for Rowan Atkinson’s incompetent secret agent character. I think it is safe to say that there was no particular public clamour for another Johnny English film, and that the main reason for the appearance of this one is that the Atkinson family finances could be in need of a top-up: Atkinson himself seems to be semi-retired these days, his only substantial appearance since the last Johnny English (seven years ago) being as Maigret on the telly.

The movie gets underway with a cyber-attack on British intelligence, compromising the identity of every agent currently operating in the field – and so, to track down the guilty party, the British Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) is forced to reactivate some retired agents, amongst them Johnny English (Atkinson), who has left the service and become a school teacher specialising in knockabout espionage gags (he is clearly beloved by his cute young charges; the presence of all the kids is really the first sign that this film is pitching to a juvenile audience in every sense of the word).

Well, after an odd little scene where the mere presence of Michael Gambon, Charles Dance and James Fox briefly lifts proceedings (sadly, these are merely uncredited cameos), English is sent out into the field with his trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller). They go to the south of France where they end up infiltrating a chic restaurant by pretending to be French waiters (cue silly voices); they encounter the mysterious yet glamorous Ophelia Bulletova (Olga Kurylenko), who seems to be working for the mastermind behind the plans; there are various pratfalls and other very obvious gags in the style of Mr Bean.

Meanwhile, the string of cyber-attacks on the UK continues, driving the PM even further up the wall. She resorts to retaining American tech tycoon Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) in order to try and shore up the country’s defences. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, well, as you can probably tell, my Anglo-Iranian Affairs Consultant and I ended up going to see this film mainly because dinner-and-a-movie is just something we occasionally do, and – having been to the cinema six times in the previous week or so – there wasn’t much else on that I hadn’t already seen. And, you know, I told myself, it’s Rowan Atkinson, it’s very difficult for him to slip below a certain level of funniness, so it’s not like the film can be a total waste of time. Indeed, a colleague had taken a seven-year-old to see it and reported that she had in fact spent some of the film laughing.

I must be becoming even more of a withered old excrescence, because while I did laugh a few times during Johnny English Strikes Again, I don’t think it was in quite the way that the makers were hoping. There are, truth be told, some inspired moments of physical comedy from Atkinson, not to mention some quite good silly voices. But so much of the film is so painfully obvious and – as mentioned – laboriously telegraphed that while I was laughing, it wasn’t because the jokes were funny – it was at the idea that professional comedy film-makers thought that this kind of material was up to scratch.

As usual, the film operates in the same kind of narrative space as the Bond series. This may be because the original film was actually co-written by Purvis and Wade, long-time workhorses of the Bond franchise, and this time around the movie has managed to snag a genuine Bond alumnus in the shape of Olga Kurylenko (I am terribly shallow, but I do enjoy watching Kurylenko, even in films as dubious as this one) – quite what someone like her, who I would describe as a proper film star, is doing third-billed after TV’s Ben Miller, I’m not sure. It’d really be stretching a point to call this a Bond parody, though – the producers seem to have decided that the core audience for these movies is quite young children, which would explain a lot in terms of how silly and predictable most of this one is. Well, actually, it shouldn’t – even quite young children deserve better than this stuff.

One of the particularly frustrating things about it is that it refuses to engage (even in passing) with the real world. The closest it comes is when Thompson, who is clearly itching to do an eviscerating impression of Theresa May, lets rip about how awful and stressful her job is. Given the movie is largely predicated on the notion of how rubbish English people are at virtually everything, it pointedly refuses to engage on the main political issues of our time, even obliquely. When it does very occasionally seem to be slightly topically relevant, this is a) almost certainly by accident and b) almost uncannily misjudged – the plot revolves around a team-up between British intelligence and their Russian counterparts, for instance. The rest of the time it simply withdraws into a bland world of slapstick nonsense.

And I can’t help thinking that there’s a rather suspect reactionary whiff coming off this film, too, which leads me to suspect it may be intended as fodder for elderly Daily Mail-reading grandparents to take their hyperactive grandchildren to see. The issue of Britain’s place in the world may not be addressed, but there’s a definite sense of the film being suspicious of the modern world – the bad guy turns out to be an Elon Musk-esque tech boffin, there’s kind of a motif about doing things ‘old school’, and various jokes about Health and Safety regulations.

So, if you are an elderly, somewhat right-wing grandparent looking for something undemanding to shut up the brood of your brood, then Johnny English Strikes Again could very well be the film for you. For virtually anyone else, though, this is just too lazy and obvious and bland to pass muster. However, there are signs that the makers of this film are taking inspiration from Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther series, which only really concluded with Sellers’ passing. Atkinson is 63 and looks to be in good shape, so there may yet be future offerings from Johnny English in the future. But look on the bright side, there might be an environmental catastrophe and the collapse of civilisation first.

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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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 17th April 2003:

…so now let’s give three hearty cheers and a cry of ‘Where the hell have you been, then?’ as – after what seems like a very long break – that riotously rib-tickling (not to mention extremely rich) rascal Rowan Atkinson returns to our screens in Peter (Joey Boswell) Howitt’s Johnny English.

Based on a long-running series of adverts Atkinson made in the 1990s, this is the improbable tale of junior-level spy Johnny English, who – following a series of accidents he is not entirely free of blame for – finds himself the highest-ranking officer in MI7 still drawing breath. With the aid of his enthusiastic sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), English’s first assignment is to investigate the French prisons tycoon Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, phoning it in) – but what part do the Crown Jewels and the Archbishop of Canterbury have in the perfidious Frog’s schemes? And how is the mysterious Lorna Campbell (gamine popstrel Natalie Imbruglia) mixed up in all this?

At first glance this appears to be a film in an old genre currently enjoying a renewed lease of life – namely, the Bond spoof. Certainly this movie makes various nods in that direction, employing most of the Bond staples – the girl, the gadget-ridden car, the villain with a ridiculous masterplan – and at one point there’s an hilariously scatalogical parody of Dr No. But, wisely, the filmmakers appear to have realised that with the Bond movies themselves operating with tongue firmly in cheek most of the time, not to mention the massive popularity of the Austin Powers movies, there’s very little room for manoeuvre left in this particular arena, and this is really much more of a generic knockabout comedy.

In fact, the film this reminded me of most was last year’s Ali G Indahouse – it has the same obsession with postcard images of London and the Royal Family, the same broad, scattershot approach to its humour. With a jingoistically named hero taking on a French villain, there was a lot of potential here for some acerbic political satire – which the scriptwriters decided to ignore in favour of slapstick and Atkinson painstakingly humiliating himself every five minutes.

So it’s just as well that the film’s actually very funny indeed – particularly impressive given that so many of the jokes are extraordinarily predictable! It’s been carefully scripted so Rowan Atkinson can do all the stuff he’s famous for – Bean-style mime and physical comedy, plus Blackadderish scabrousness and hubris. This is the first time he’s carried a film single-handedly (unless any of you can correct me…), and he does an extremely good job of it. To be fair, he gets nearly all the funny lines in the film, although Ben Miller provides excellent comic support. Malkovich takes refuge in the first resort of the struggling comic actor, deploying an extremely silly accent. And Natalie Imbruglia looks very nice, although this should not be news to anyone.

Howitt directs inventively (to avoid paying for crowd scenes it looks like he simply went out and filmed people watching last summer’s Jubilee celebrations) and his action sequences are particularly impressive, though I doubt the Broccolis will be on the phone just yet. One real oddity, though: attentive masochists will recall me complaining about the Fake Trailer Gambit, where stuff in the advert isn’t in the movie. Well, Johnny English has a weird variation on this – all the stuff from the trailer appears, it’s just that some of it has different actors playing the parts, for no reason I can think of. Very, very strange…

In any case, Johnny English is a welcome return to the screen for one of the UK’s finest comic performers. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste – it’s too broad and obvious for that – but it is immensely likeable. It made me smile, it made me chuckle, it made me laugh, and it made me want to apply for a new credit card (not sure why, but anyway….) Not as good as the best of the Austin Powers movies, but definitely within striking distance. Fun.

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