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It’s traditional now to look for Brexit significances in any new film with a British slant and that does seem applicable to this revival of the Johnny English action-comedy spoof franchise – which started back in 2003 with Johnny English and spluttered back to life in 2011 with Johnny English Reborn. Will tongue-in-cheek self-satire on the subject of how obviously rubbish we are be the nation’s new export opportunity?
At any rate, the pop-eyed, rubber-faced incompetent Johnny English has had his licence to cock things up renewed for the second time – that name of his signalling more than anything else that he is a broad comic creation designed for non-English-speaking cinemagoing territories.
He is of course the daft secret agent who despite his bizarre pretensions to smoothie glamour has got a little bit of Clouseau, a dash of Mr Bean and a dollop of that chap contributing a single note to the Chariots of Fire theme tune at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. He’s also originally based on the traveller and international man of mystery Atkinson once played in the now forgotten Barclaycard TV ads, leaving chaos in his wake.
There are one or two nice moments in this latest JE outing. I loved Johnny English approaching a helicopter while dressed in a medieval suit of armour and the rotor blades briefly clanging against his helmet. Atkinson’s gift for physical comedy is on display, but the humour feels pretty underpowered and weirdly superfluous, especially as the “serious” film brands like 007 and Mission Impossible themselves now confidently offer comedy as an ingredient. The humour feels as if it is pitched at kids rather than adults, and for me Johnny English’s wacky misadventures aren’t as inventive and focused as Atkinson’s silent-movie gags in the persona of Bean.
The perennially topical premise now is that Great Britain is in serious trouble. A cyber-hacker has infiltrated Britain’s super-secret web network of spies, revealing the identities of all Britain’s agents in the field, to the dismay of the agent on duty – a regrettably small role for Kevin Eldon.
It’s the last straw for a prime minister who is a pompous and embattled figure, already suffering a complete meltdown of political unpopularity: Emma Thompson does her very best with this quasi-Teresa-May character but there’s nothing much in the script to work with. Her intelligence advisers inform her that as every single active spy has been compromised, she will have to bring someone out of retirement. And that means bumbling Johnny English himself, now employed as a schoolmaster in some posh establishment, but giving off-the-record lessons in how to be an undercover operative: some nice gags here, as English offers a School of Rock-type academy of spying.
English is whisked back to Whitehall for an emergency briefing and reunited with his former long-suffering sidekick Bough, played again by Ben Miller. Bough is now a married man, hitched to a submarine commander, a jolly-hockey-sticks role in which Vicki Pepperdine is a bit wasted. So the Batman and Robin of getting things terribly wrong on Her Majesty’s Secret Service are back in action, encountering Olga Kurylenko’s beautiful femme fatale Ophelia Bulletova. Meanwhile, the prime minister is falling dangerously under the spell of the charismatic tech billionaire who claims he can solve Britain’s computer woes: the sinister Jason Volta, played by Jake Lacy.
English and Bough begin their odyssey of farcical high-jinks: disguised as waiters, they set fire to a flash French restaurant; they create mayhem smuggling themselves aboard Volta’s luxury yacht; and English triggers pure anarchy as he attempts to use a Virtual Reality headset to familiarise himself with the interior of Volta’s house. All the stops are certainly pulled out for that last sequence, but as amiable and boisterous as it is, there’s quite a bit of kids’ TV about the whole thing.
Pretty moderate stuff. And as with the other Johnny English films I couldn’t help thinking: can’t the British film industry give Rowan Atkinson a role that really does justice to his talent?
Source: The Guardian
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