'Johnny English Strikes Again': Film Review

Licensed to yawn.

Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson and Olga Kurylenko co-star in this third chapter in the long-running spy-spoof series.

If you are going to base an entire movie franchise on a single joke, it needs to be a really good joke. Rowan Atkinson's clownishly inept secret agent Johnny English was never an especially witty creation, but his previous two big-screen outings had their amusing moments, mostly rooted in their leading man's precision-tooled physical comedy and elasticated face-pulling. Seven years since the last adventure, Johnny English Strikes Again is an oddly mirthless addition to the series. Flatly directed by British TV transfer David Kerr from a clunky screenplay by William Davies, it delivers little besides labored jokes, a moronic plot and characters so thinly drawn they make Mister Bean look like the work of prime Ingmar Bergman.

Of course, this broadly pitched James Bond parody series has never been critic-friendly, but so far it has proved largely critic-proof. The first two movies grossed around $160 million apiece worldwide, although U.S. box office was decidedly lukewarm for Johnny English Reborn (2011). Distributor Universal is doubtless hoping for similarly rich returns with this third chapter, which is currently on staggered release across Europe, Asia and South America ahead of an Oct. 26 U.S. launch. But seven years is a long gap between sequels, and brand loyalty for Atkinson's comic skills may be more shaken than stirred now that his phenomenally successful Mister Bean character has faded into semi-retirement.

The briskly paced plot opens with a catastrophic cyber attack on British intelligence service MI7, which exposes the identities of undercover agents around the world. In desperation, the U.K. Prime Minister (Emma Thompson, looking suitably embarrassed) is forced to reactivate a cohort of retired ex-spies to try and track down the hacker, including English. The accident-prone former agent is now working as a teacher at a provincial school, imparting unorthodox lessons on perilous espionage techniques to super-keen pre-teens.

Recalled to MI7, the old-school English has no time for the service's shiny new culture of digital phones and hybrid cars. Arming himself with a dusty old revolver, a vintage Aston Martin and his longstanding sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), he roars off to the south of France to investigate a credible lead on the cyber attack. Theere he tangles with glamorous Russian agent Ophelia Bulletova, played by former 007 co-star Olga Kurylenko, an obvious bit of self-referential stunt casting and the closest thing to a sophisticated joke in the whole movie.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, an escalation in computer hacks has left the county paralyzed. Forced into crisis mode, Thompson's PM calls on Silicon Valley billionaire Jason Volta (Jake Lacy, channeling Elon Musk with a hint of Mark Zuckerberg) to fix the problem. Smarmy and slick, Volta is a power-hungry corporate villain straight out of central casting, his evil intentions immediately telegraphed by a grindingly predictable screenplay. Volta's plot to hold the world to digital ransom builds to a head-slappingly illogical showdown at a multi-national summit meeting in Scotland. Donning a full suit of armor for added comic effect, English arrives just in time to accidentally avert major disaster by triggering a few minor ones.

James Bond parodies have been a screen staple for so long now, they have evolved into their own stand-alone genre. Johnny English Strikes Again boldly goes where many others have gone before, from the Austin Powers trilogy to the French super-agent OSS117 series to Melissa McCarthy's rambunctious action comedy Spy. But lack of originality is not the main issue here. While the films listed above were no masterpieces, they at least boasted enough zingy one-liners, stellar guest stars and ritzy locations to function as cheery escapist nonsense.

Not so Johnny English Strikes Again, which feels more like a threadbare cash-in than the latest installment of a blockbuster franchise. A couple of  sustained slapstick set-piece sequences, at a glitzy French restaurant and inside a Virtual Reality simulation, could conceivably raise a few laughs among the younger children who appear to be the film's main target audiences. But the rest of us will simply have our time wasted by a cheap-looking romp that remains obstinately low on comic inspiration from start to finish. Crucially, this tired Bond spoof is now less funny than most official 007 films.

Production companies: Studiocanal, Working Title, Perfect World
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson, Olga Kurylenko, Jake Lacy, Miranda Hennessy, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Adam James
Director: David Kerr
Screenwriter: William Davies
Producers: Chris Clark, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Rowan Atkinson, Rafael Benoliel
Cinematographer: Florian Hoffmeister
Editors: Tony Cranstoun, Mark Everson
Music: Howard Goodall

88 minutes