After the onslaught of Austin Powers and his magic bell-bottoms, is there really anything left to spoof about spy movies? The genre is dangerously close to becoming a parody of itself. Just how many screwball variations of “Shaken, not stirred” can be employed before audiences start yawning?
The makers of “Johnny English” obviously think there’s more humor here, but in fact they’ve barely got more than one joke. Johnny (Rowan Atkinson of “Mr. Bean” fame), an ABBA-loving pencil pusher by trade but a glamorous spy in his imagination, is an inept lunkhead who is not suited to any part of secret-agent work, be it trailing the bad guy who wants to be crowned king of England (John Malkovich, with a frightening French accent) or wooing a mysterious brunette (singer Natalie Imbruglia).
Here’s how it works: Johnny says something such as “This is the most secure location in the whole of England,” and immediately a huge explosion wipes out all of Britain’s agents. The main variation on this theme is that Johnny also has a knack for ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time and blaming the wrong people for wrongdoing. Over and over.
That’s the bad news. Good news is that sometimes the joke and a half actually works. Atkinson, with his shifty eyes, protruding ears and squirmy little mouth, is effortlessly clueless, and it’s fair to say that Johnny’s dunderheadedness is far more bearable than Austin Powers was the last time out.
Atkinson is also good at physical comedy, particularly in a scene involving a tie and a revolving sushi bar, which should stand out but doesn’t because the moment is cut short. Which is odd, because the film holds more than its share of filler (much of this has to do with Imbruglia, but I suppose every spy spoof needs a love interest, even if she’s not much of an actress).
Overall, “Johnny English” never feels as much of a retread as “Goldmember” did, but then, it never reaches the inspired heights of lunacy in that film’s opening sequence. It’s old-fashioned in its consistency, mostly retro in its humor. “Johnny English,” despite its contemporary-sounding anti-French cracks, could easily have been made 20 years ago. Might have seemed better, and fresher, if it had.