Rowan Atkinson is a comedic genius. He is one of that rare breed who can make people laugh with a look, or a gesture, or a remark. And yet, it is interesting to see him return to the Johnny English franchise with the new “Johnny English Strikes Again” as the first two movies in the franchise weren’t particularly great (if one is being kind).
At the heart of the series is, of course, Atkinson as the titular Johnny English, a British spy working for the fictional MI7 and very much in the James Bond mold, except for his incompetence. English gets the job done, but not without infuriating his superiors and backing into a great deal of luck. He more falls into the solution rather than working it out.
This basic framework is at play once again in the new film, this time directed by David Kerr and with a script from William Davies. English is convinced to come out of retirement at the start of the film when all active duty agents are revealed due to a computer hack. His job, simply put, is to determine who is behind the hacking and put an end to it. English, along with his sidekick, Bough (Ben Miller), magically end up on the right trial which includes running into a secretive Russian woman, Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko), who knows more than she is letting on.
The specifics there, however, are irrelevant. “Johnny English Strikes Again” isn’t really a movie that cares about how things necessarily progress from A to B, but rather making sure that the audience enjoys the trip. Largely, they will not.
Again, Atkinson is undeniably a force of nature. Here he throws many of the scenes upon his shoulders, forcing them to be passable where the script doesn’t quite get there.
One particularly funny scene has English and Bough pretend to be waiters in a French restaurant in order to secure a cell phone. It succeeds due to Atkinson’s comedy rather than anything in the concept itself. On the whole there is little laughter in the movie, but Atkinson will create smiles amongst those watching whereas a lesser comedian might not have been able to keep the audience awake. It is something to behold.
The biggest concern, from the audience perspective, with his character is that, as with previous entries, it remains unclear when or why English might succeed or fail. That is, English is exceptionally adept in some moments and a complete incompetent in others. There seems to be little reason as to why he oscillates so wildly other than the needs of the story/comedy.
While Miller is enjoyable in his return as Bough (the character was in the first movie but not the second), the true standout is Emma Thompson as the British Prime Minister. She is every bit Atkinson’s equal and adds necessary life to the scenes that do not feature English. Watching the film, one actually thinks that perhaps Thompson’s PM deserves a movie of her own, one in which we get to see her face down the evils of Whitehall and battle foreign politicians.
Slightly less enjoyable is Jake Lacy’s tech billionaire, Jason Volta. The character has a Bond villain’s megalomaniacal tendencies but what only feels like the basic outlines of a plan, and, interestingly, it is only a basic outline but still somehow over complicated.
Perhaps due to this being a comedy rather than a big budget action movie, some of the CG isn’t what we might get in a Bond film, but the locations and camera work beautifully ape the Bond style. There are moments that are right out of “GoldenEye” and “Die Another Day,” but with a Johnny English spin that highlight exactly how good this franchise could be in the right hands. I still hope that with the fourth one they get there.
Should you see “Johnny English Strikes Again?” Absolutely. Provided that it’s a slow evening and it’s playing on Netflix or HBO or some similar service.
photo credit: Focus Features