A belated look at the return of Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling wannabe Bond.
As one of the finest comedic performers this country has ever produced, the return of Rowan Atkinson must always be welcome, especially given his normally prolonged absence between projects. Some, however, will not welcome the return of his incompetent secret agent alter-ego Johnny English, a character that began life in a few credit card commercials before graduating to the big screen in the successful but strained first outing back in 2003. Now Atkinson returns to the role and it seems time has been rather kinder to the character than might have been expected. No longer spoofing a spoof (as was clearly the case with 2002’s Die Another Day), Johnny English Reborn instead feels like its raising a glass to the James Bond of old, even while it dusts off its collection of tried-and-tested jokes.
Dismissed from the service a few years ago after botching a mission in Mozambique, the publicly disgraced English has been in hiding in a Tibetan monastery. He is unexpectedly recalled to active duty by Pegasus (Gillian Anderson), the head of British Intelligence, after a former CIA agent learns of a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier in the UK, and is only willing to divulge the details to Johnny. So English sets off, in typical Bond-ian fashion, on the trail of the would-be assassins, checking in at such exotic locales as Shanghai, Zurich and, er, Tooting, even as he himself is targeted for assassination.
The likelihood of you enjoying Johnny English Reborn rest mainly on your willingness to embrace Atkinson’s old-fashioned slapstick and gentle mocking of the upper classes. The humour feels something like a time capsule from a less cynical age, and that’s what will divide audiences: those with little patience for Johnny English’s less than cutting edge style of comedy will likely walk away bored and unimpressed.
That’s not to say that this new outing is entirely toothless, though; as the title suggests, the new wave of post-Bourne spy action films comes in for a good ribbing early on as Johnny chases a free-running Chinese agent. Whereas Daniel Craig’s Bond followed his quarry in Casino Royale by crashing through walls, English opts for more conventional methods: taking the lift as opposed to scrambling down scaffolding, and squeezing past obstacles rather than vaulting over them. The story’s heart is the triumph of the old underdog over the new upstarts.
But that’s as post-modern as things get. Back in London it’s as if Craig and Casino Royale never happened. The traditional briefing with M – sorry, Pegasus – is followed swiftly by the tour of the armoury with Q – sorry, Patch Quatermain (fellow Blackadder alumni Tim McInnerny) – as English tries out one or two of the experimental gadgets on display. Bond fans who have missed this last element from the most recent couple of entries will surely feel a pleasant tingle of nostalgia at this point, re-enforced later by a golf match that can only be a tip of the hat to Goldfinger. They’ve even nicked the seemingly impregnable base in the Swiss Alps from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which English has to break in to for the big climax.
The first half of the film generally contains the best gags (English’s escape on a souped-up wheelchair, his run-ins with the David Cameron-esque PM, and his reaction to the word Mozambique should all raise a smile), but, while the plot is entirely predictable, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Ultimately of course the film is a vehicle for Atkinson to do his thing, and as such it works like a well-oiled machine: efficient and entirely safe. Any why begrudge Atkinson returning to the role every few years in much the same way that Peter Sellers did with Clouseau? On this evidence, he still has the energy and skill to raise enough laughs to sustain a full-length film, which makes Johnny English 3 a not unwelcome prospect.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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