Johnny English Reborn: Film Review

A redundant spy farce sequel that’s less of a rebirth than a retread.

Elastic-faced British comedian Rowan Atkinson has another go at playing the inept M17 spy.

SYDNEY — It’s been a particularly long time between martinis for James Bond fans, but don’t go relying on the bumbling British spy farce Johnny English Reborn to step into the breach. Even the most desperately deprived secret-agent devotee will find little to cheer in this yawn-tastic 007 send-up.

Has anyone really been clamouring for a sequel to 2003’s Johnny English, itself a formulaic parody based – incredibly enough – on a series of British credit card commercials starring the loose-limbed, elastic-faced comedian Rowan Atkinson?

Still, even with its sophomoric set-ups and jokes you could see coming a mile away, the original pulled in an impressive $160 million worldwide. There’s no reason to expect that the sequel, in which the dunderheaded MI7 spook of the title is recalled from exile to stop a triumvirate of assassins, won’t draw similar numbers of undiscerning Anglophiles and youngsters who find incessant granny-bashing funny.

It opens in the U.S. October 28, after an international roll-out that kicked off in Australia September 15.

Eight years on from Johnny English, Atkinson appears to have been engulfed by an ambitionless malaise. Apart from a scene-stealing cameo as a jewelry salesman in Love Actually, his only other film of note has been another sequel, Mr Bean’s Holiday.

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But this film’s minimal laugh-to-gag ratio is not his fault.

Director Oliver Parker’s(Dorian Gray, St. Trinian’s) pacing is off and the screenplay, by Hamish McColl(Mr Bean’s Holiday) from a story by William Davies (How to Train Your Dragon, Johnny English), fails to provide a lively enough framework for this gifted and intelligent actor’s unique physical comedy.

Though graying at the temples, Atkinson still gamely runs through his repertoire of po-faced pratfalls and amusing eyebrow gymnastics. Best known in America as his other alter ego Mr. Bean, Atkinson has raised epic silliness to an art form, and many find his gentle, old-fashioned style a welcome shelter from the squall of profanity-dependent comedy.

Since we last encountered English, the pompous, accident-prone spy has been stripped of his knighthood, ignominiously booted out of MI7 and banished to a Tibetan monastery after some unpleasant business in Mozambique. The prologue seems to exist solely as an elaborate set-up for a long-delayed crotch joke, but soon he is recalled to London by MI7’s “M”-like chief, Pamela Thornton (Gillian Anderson, who seems to be channelling Pearce Brosnan rather than Judi Dench). 

The British intelligence agency (now sponsored by Toshiba, in a self-referential nod to the film’s own product placement) has unearthed a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier, involving a set of three interlocking keys, a mind-control drug, and sketchy elements hiding within KGB, CIA and MI7 itself. English is the only person the informant will speak to and so he is reluctantly dispatched, along with astute young greenhorn Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), on a mission to stop the would-be killers from triggering global chaos.

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Cue a series of grand disasters, accidental triumphs and much buffoonery – the best of which comes when Atkinson is really let off the leash, as when he mistakenly ingests a drug that triggers a good deal of virtuoso flailing.

Beyond a handful of standout set pieces – there’s a terrific bit with a smug Johnny English using elevators and ladders to outpace an agile villain during a rooftop chase – the general vibe is one of laziness. The action is by-the-numbers and the ungainly machinations of the plot are familiar from countless spy spoofs from Maxwell Smart on, giving a lie to the rejuvenation promised by the title. It would be far better to see Johnny English reborn on the big screen as another Atkinson character altogether: the hilarious Blackadder, from the BBC mock-historical series of the same name.

The supporting cast is solid, from Rosamund Pike(a former Bond Girl from Die Another Day) as a behavioral psychologist and unlikely love interest, to Dominic West(The Wire) as English’s idol, Agent One.

There are some pleasing diversions through Hong Kong and the French Alps, and the look of the film is first-rate, thanks to cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech), production designer Jim Clay (Children of Men, Love Actually) and costume designer Beatrix Pasztor (Vanity Fair, Good Will Hunting.)