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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Howitt’

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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