Synopsis – After a cyber-attack reveals the identity of all of the active undercover agents in Britain, Johnny English is forced to come out of retirement to find the mastermind hacker.
My Take – It’s been a while since we saw Rowan Atkinson on the big screen, right? Seven years to be exact (not counting his appearance as Mr. Bean in last year’s Chinese comedy ‘Huan Le Xi Ju Ren‘), hence watching him return in his harmless James Bond based parody character, Johnny English, following the 2003 original and its 2011 sequel, felt like the right kind of homecoming. Considering the series’ first two installments earned more than $320 million at the global box office, it is easy to see why producers, Working Title have revived the 007-aimed farce for a belated third outing.
Unfortunately it seems like the filmmakers had forgotten to update their concepts over the years, as the parody plays like we are still in the early 2000s with the titular inept secret agent battling commonplace digital technologies, and his own incompetence, for our giggles. While espionage parodies have moved on in recent years, thanks to the likes of Spy and Kingsman: The Secret Service, the old-fashioned satire route the film follows feels resolutely obsolete. The notion of spy pens, explosive gummy bears and blow darts haven’t been seen in ‘real’ spy films since the early ’90s and made the humor along with the plot feel dated and unrelatable.
While Atkinson’s slapstick routines have an undeniably lasting appeal to them, who here uses all the same gags, even throwing in a couple of bits in homage to his, in my personal opinion his better character Mr. Bean, but is this latest hap hazard outing of the most useless spy in the world, it all just seems like a tired effort to cash in on the genre.
The story follows Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), a geography teacher and former MI7 agent, who spends his rather mundane life training his students on the side in the art of spying and tactics. However, when a massive cyber-attack compromises all active undercover agents in Britain, he is summoned back to active duty. Tasked with catching the master hacker, along with his trusty assistant, Bough (Ben Miller), English sets off to the south of France to follow a lead, much to the dismay of the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson), who is very much trying to win over the favor of Jason (Jake Lacy), an American tech genius, for an upcoming summit. As the mission unfolds, English comes across Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko), a mysterious femme fatale, who he must quickly size-up, lest she outplay him, and of course before his own clumsiness and incompetence hamper the mission’s progress and Britain’s future.
As expected, here director David Kerr and Atkinson deliver a mixed bag of slapstick comedy and spy games that’ll either crack you up or leave you groaning. Unfortunately, the plot itself was not that difficult to predict. After the introduction of Jason, a high tech billionaire with advanced tracking capabilities, it was clear that he was the hacker we were looking for. The film doesn’t spend long trying to hide this reveal, but it is long enough that the audience might feel a little stupid for watching. The pacing is also off. For an 88-minute film, it drags. Director David Kerr, who has done great work on the small screen, unfortunately, has nothing here to play with as a result, the plot feels like a potentially cracking half-hour of content stretched out too far.
While screenwriter William Davies intends to tread carefully, by not pushing the implicit conservatism too far: English is skeptical about women in the military, for instance, but eventually learns to move with the times. Still, the film does allow a certain amount of anti-American satire, aimed especially at a youthfully smarmy Silicon Valley billionaire. Worth noting is the sympathetic treatment of a character who proves to be working for the Russians – confirming that the filmmakers aren’t particularly looking to score a hit in the US. The screenplay also finds some thematic resonance with the idea that many have become alienated or left behind by the proliferation of rapidly advancing technology. P
ositioning Johnny English as an old school spy, and constantly reminding us of the new world we live in, it’s quite fun to have the British rogue opting for the traditional garb over the new fiddly devices. Spoofing spy technology, the silliness of small gadgets, the practical use of handheld devices and poking fun at just about every new trend in terms of technology, this film had all the right tools to succeed. But as the film possesses little in the way of plot, it instead relies heavily on its eponymous walking disaster.
The classic humor where you know exactly what’s going to happen you just want to see how he’s going to react to it. For example, English dallies with waiters yet again, and clanks around in a suit of armor; he is equally clueless with both modern and medieval props. What drama does exist is as clichéd and predictable as the film’s exaggerated mishaps. Sure, Atkinson’s talent for physical comedy carries the film, despite some more awkward scenes of attempted verbal humor, but surprisingly what’s funny in the trailer isn’t as amusing in the eventual film. What’s most surprising is that for a comedy film, the actual gags are few and far between; set-ups are heavily sign-posted then the punchlines are reiterated just in case you missed it.
There is rarely any gag that has spontaneity. If jokes are the heart of a comedy, then the joke rate is like the heart beat and this film is close to flat lining. Lazily shaken and not even messily stirring, there’s a repeating formula here: English announces that something outlandish will occur — a car will break down, or someone will take a tumble, for example — only for it to then happen to him. You could almost train to become a real spy in the elongated gap between the feature’s set-ups and its punchlines. Also the spy gear that Johnny did request was clearly added narratively speaking to also cause more hijinks. The introduction of sleeping pills or hyper pills was clearly going to be misused later by English (and sure enough they were). It is not a great look if the films you are spoofing beat you to the punchline!
The introduction of magnetic boots, candy trackers and even the beautiful Aston Martin, even at the beginning of the film, were clearly going to be misused by English in some hilarious fashion. For the majority of the film you can see any jokes or set-up coming so far off you are just counting the minutes for them to get to the joke already. Yes, some sequences do work! For anyone who grew up watching Rowan Atkinson on television as Mr. Bean will know how laughing at his stupidity was in itself laughing at how ridiculous it is laughing at such ridiculousness. A perfect example of this is the largest-scale comic set-piece where English dons a virtual reality helmet and immediately confuses the illusion with the real world, stumbling through a London shopping strip and battling the bystanders he mistakes for foes.
The scene has Atkinson at his best, reminding audiences why he is still the king of slapstick humor. And even if the other 83 minutes don’t quite leave you in stitches, it’s still nice to have Atkinson and his unique physicality back on display and in front of a new audience. An another scene which has English, trying to be suave with Ophelia, immediately forgets the pseudonym he just gave himself, a rare moment when Atkinson‘s effortless skill with expression and wide-eyed bewilderment is fully used, probably the only scene which left me in splits. Even after all this years, it’s hard not to see Rowan Atkinson as anything but Mr. Bean and this film doesn’t change that. His hand gestures, mannerisms and particular looks he gives oozes his classic character. From his non-stop dancing that will have you in stitches to his comedic take on the final chase to save the day. He brings a style of comedy not seen for some time and it’s just sad to watch how the film doesn’t support him ably.
In supporting roles, Ben Miller provides a crucial contrast to the outrageous English, while Emma Thompson is fun as the U.K. Prime Minister. Olga Kurylenko too is likable as the femme fatale, though she manages to dumb her character down for her titular lead, she still fit the character well. However, Jake Lacy‘s performance is a quite underwhelming. On the whole, ‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ is an unsurprisingly disappointing comedy film that is let down by its strained tropes and its failure to cash in on Atkinson‘s talent.
Directed – David Kerr
Rated – PG
Run Time – 88 minutes