Johnny English Strikes Again is the third of, what is apparently a Johnny English trilogy. Proving the Brits have a sense of humor about themselves, the series pokes fun at 007 himself. James Bond parodies are hardly anything new but few of them have the good sense to use Rowan Atkinson.
It must be said upfront that Johnny English is not a complicated movie. William Davies has written not a script so much as an excuse. An excuse to tell the jokes he and Atkinson want to tell. Still, it does what it does so breezily and so effortlessly it borders on the sublime.
To be blunt, I giggled myself silly. Rowan Atkinson is such a charming presence that we not only buy his bumbling English, we sort of root for him as well. David Kerr, the director, knows well enough to just sit back and know when to yell “Cut.” Atkinson, for his part, has the wonderful ability to set up a joke so old that just from the setup we know what’s coming. Yet, when the punch line arrives, we find ourselves laughing. An old joke told well is like a pair of fuzzy slippers and a mug of hot cocoa.
English and his steadfast partner Angus Bough (Ben Miller) go through the obligatory “Here are the weapons and gadgets we will use this movie” scene. One of which is a vial filled with, on one side, green pills. The other side is filled with orange pills. One side is a super energy pill and the other side has knockout pills. Bough nods, “Probably best we label those.”
Everyone in the theater knows where that scene is going. Still, when English can’t sleep and the gorgeous Russian spy Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko) sneaks into his room to snuff him out; we know how that is going to go as well. It doesn’t stop it from being funny though. Atkinson commits to Johnny English as a character much in the same way Tom Hardy commits to Eddie Brock/Venom. He is a professional at the top of his game, waltzing along in a movie that, headlined by anybody else, would be a clunker.
Unlike his American counterpart Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) from The Naked Gun movies, Johnny English isn’t invincible. Nielsen’s Drebin is a bumbling blowhard who through sheer arrogance and ignorance somehow emerges from the world unscathed. It is a uniquely American idea of comedy. Whereas Atkinson’s English is beaten down by the world, berated by his superiors. He is always down but he is never out.
The American Drebin seems clueless to his imbecility whereas Atkinson’s English, though blustery, seems keenly aware of how he is perceived. More than that, despite his shortcomings, unlike his American counterpart, English is actually somewhat competent at his job. Drebin succeeds even when he fails. But English gets yelled at by his boss the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson), and her anger is justified. He’s a klutz. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to be me?” She cries to him after yet another classic English bungle. It’s a heartbreaking scene because again, we’re rooting for English.
He’s an old man called out of retirement and asked to help his country. A retirement, I might add, that consisted of teaching at a boarding school where he taught a class of enraptured boys girls the tricks of the trade. “You there, Simmons. Six points. Splendid booby trap.”
Moments such as these set English apart from the Drebins and the Austin Powers. Rowan Atkinson gives us not a caricature but a character. Atkinson is part of a dying breed. A comedic actor more at home within complete human creations as opposed to absurd surrealists abstract ideas of how people behave. English is at heart, a nice guy. He’s a bit of a classicist twit but all in all, he means well.
Even Ophelia fares better than she would in most movies. Kurylenko is a welcome reprieve from how most women are used in movies like these. Yes, they are usually the more competent one to their goofy counterparts, but they are also usually, inexplicably, sexually drawn to them as well. Kurylenko’s Ophelia is fascinated by English and English is clearly attracted to Ophelia, but that is the extent of it.
Kerr and Davies allow Ophelia and English to co-exist without the threat of romantic entanglement. Nowhere in Johnny English are there scenes of Kurylenko stripping naked or walking around in her underwear masquerading as embarrassing awkward seductions for cheap laughs. They have a mutual respect. A wise move considering having any kind of relationship other than platonic for the two would cause the movie to come dangerously close to being serious. Johnny English is a movie where the moment you see Jake Lacy is in the cast you immediately know who the villain is going to be.
Kerr and Florian Hoffmeister, the cinematographer, set the camera down and let Atkinson do the heavy lifting. Hoffmeister and Kerr disregard the trend of Judd Apatow and Adam McKay and comedies that run over two hours. Instead, they do a joke and move on to the next one. They feel no need to milk a laugh for longer than it needs to be. It’s an old-fashioned way of doing comedy; if the joke is good the audience will laugh, and if it’s not they won’t.
I was the only one in my theater when I saw it the other day. Not unusual considering I saw the first showing of the day. Still, it’s a shame. Movies like Johnny English are a dying breed. Stupid but clever. Predictable but never boring. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and Rowan Atkinson’s pants fall down. In other words, perfection.