Director: Peter Howlitt
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, John Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia
Plot: Inept spy, Johnny English (Atkinson) is tasked with protecting the Crown Jewels. They are inevitably stolen not long after.
The spy parody genre is a rather oversoaked one. Perhaps it something about the pompous air of arrogance that comes with movies like James Bond or Mission Impossible. They have almost primed themselves for some good ridiculing. However, with such an over-stuffed sub-genre of comedy, it is hard to pick out the really good ones. They bleed into each other, aiming for the same sort of gags and finding it difficult to break through the mould. However, from an outside perspective, Johnny English is the one to pay attention to. Spurning enough unexpected sequels to classify itself as a trilogy, it is clearly the one that has justified enough repeat encounters.
It is hard to look at a spy parody movie and not notice all the flaws. It is almost as though this genre starts packed with problems and its job is to add enough quality material to survive in spite of this problems. For instance, we the script and pacing so set on making fun of the situation, there is little time to establish anything. At the time of release, perhaps Johnny English’s plot about an attempt to claim the throne was exciting, but in modern times, it feels like an exaggerated version of a Bond movie. John Malkovich plays the over-exuberant Bond villain, with an outrageous French accent and a megalomaniac plot. He also has a handy video tape announcing his plot to the world and the audience to help speed up the plot when its third act comes along. At least Malkovich has a blast with the part, taking part in some hilarious over-the-top ranting. That can’t be said for Imbruglia, who embodies the embarrassing trope of the Bond girl. Bond girls are at their best when properly developed, escaping the stereotypes that plague the role, but Imbruglia feels like a checklist of clichés. Strong and independent, yet inexplicably in need of and attracted to the male hero. It adds to the hurt, when that hero isn’t the likes of the handsome Pierce Brosnan or the charismatic Timothy Dalton, but Rowan Atkinson, gibbering his way through the adventure. Acting would have also been appreciated. Johnny English, simply put, is something we’ve seen before. Casting Rowan Atkinson as your lead is also forcing comparisons of his comedy stint in the incomparable Blackadder. There Atkinson was the master of comedic wit and ruthless sarcasm. Since, he has been relegated to the nightmare role of Mr. Bean that has reduced him to the helpless dimwit. Anything that veers closer to the idiot figure of Bean rather than the cruel cunning of Blackadder feels a waste of talent. Truthfully, Johnny English is probably an in-between. It isn’t English’s stupidity which makes him funny, but his perceived image of himself. Like Inspector Clouseau in Pink Panther, he refuses to take responsibility for his mistakes, making for an amusing arrogant prat. There is definitely more to the performance than meets the eye. And truthfully, Johnny English is just really quite funny. It doesn’t even matter that, after a while, you suspect that Peter Howlitt only has one joke up his sleeve (English mixes two things up to funny results), because the delivery is so well-timed. It is the false confidence, the embarrassment… and perhaps most amusingly, the pathetic excuses that Rowan Atkinson comes out with to explain his errors. Paired with an on-form Ben Miller as the loyal lapdog, Johnny English provides a thorough hilarious experience.
Final Verdict: Funny, even when struggling with a packed sub-genre of comedy. Rowan Atkinson shines in his new role.