JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN. Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Rosamund Pike, Gillian Andersen, and Daniel Kaluuya. Directed by Oliver Parker. Rated PG (Mild action violence). 101 min.
Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) returns in this movie to pit his skills against international assassins, who are plotting to murder the Premier of China with the aid of a mind-control drug that routinely programs anyone to kill. He has been mothballed for incompetency, and out-cast to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery to learn the secrets of self-control, but has another chance to redeem himself and make up for his past mistakes. His job is to get to the assassins before they create global chaos, and he has every gadget imaginable to help him. Along the way, he needs to tackle also the conspiracy that permeates MI-7. It is not the spy agency, it used to be.
The film is a sequel to "Johnny English" (2003). That original film had Johnny English baring the buttocks of the resident Archbishop, about to crown the villain of the piece as King of England. This film, in a less absurd plot (but still featuring royalty) focuses more pointedly on its thriller potential and uses elaborate stunts with explosions to match. It also uses a rich array of exotic locations (as most respectable spy movies do these days), including London, the scenic mountain regions of Switzerland, Macau and Hong Kong, but basically still relies on the very considerable comic skills of Rowan Atkinson.
Rowan Atkinson is a gifted comedian, who role-plays people, who typically have delusions of grandeur. He is extremely adept at making his characters look awkward. Forever unable to live up to their own expectations, they misidentify, make awful judgements about the wrong person, create havoc with their mistakes, and all the while are blissfully innocent of what they are doing, or what is happening around them. Here, Johnny English has all these features. He is the lonely and mis-understood intelligence officer, entirely confident of his abilities, who is thrust unwittingly into the role of saving the world.
The film parodies the James Bond secret agent series, and plays close to the cuff of the Bond genre by including a substantial number of its familiar plot elements. Some of Atkinson's comedy routines pay off, such as the chase along the streets of London while he drives a wheelchair, which cleverly parodies the proverbial car chase sequences in modern action films. Atkinson is best, however, trying to cope with the absurdities of being an awkward person, and the film frequently slips into trading parody for clumsy slapstick. Gillian Andersen satirises the Head of MI7, who finally comes to appreciate English for the spy that he is, and Rosamund Pike, who was a James Bond Girl in "Die Another Day" in 2002, takes the part of a glamorous psychologist, who struggles to understand Johnny English and eventually falls in love with him. Daniel Kaluuya plays agent, Tucker, who sets English up to do comic things.
The film is erratic in the cleverness of its spoofing, but Atkinson's distinctive comic style makes the film very enjoyable. Those looking just for a thoughtful satire on James Bond, as the most famous spy in escapist-movie history, will be disappointed, but those who are addicts of the antics of the embarrassed Mr Bean will appreciate the special genius of Rowan Atkinson. As a cross between Maxwell Smart and Mr Bean, Rowan Atkinson in this film pushes the character of James Bond one fanciful notch further as Johnny English. Being a little older, he plays James Bond with comic-serious flair this time around, and the movie is entertaining, but it never quite dramatically establishes a highly original comic character that may yet be born again.
Peter W Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out September 15th., 2011.