REVIEW: Not Even Rowan Atkinson's Grand Comic Gifts Can Resuscitate Johnny English Reborn
Among the great mysteries of the spy-movie world -- along with the question of how Blofeld keeps his suits from being covered with cat hair -- is this: Why aren't the Johnny English movies better?
Johnny English Reborn is the second picture in this mini-franchise, and like the first -- the 2003 Johnny English -- it stars the extraordinarily gifted, and extraordinarily silly, Rowan Atkinson. Atkinson's willingness to be completely absurd is his strong suit. I've listened to many of my colleagues smile benevolently when I praise a movie like Atkinson's Mr. Bean's Holiday -- "My kids like Mr. Bean," they generally say, halfheartedly. But I stand by my view of Mr. Bean's Holiday, in which Bean, the near-silent and wholly irritating naif, wins a trip to the Cannes Film Festival, as a marvel of modern-day physical humor. Atkinson will make a fool of himself, gladly -- using a bicycle to pursue a chicken through the French countryside, as Mr. Bean does in Holiday, certainly qualifies -- yet there's both discipline and joy behind his madness, and a clear sense that he knows how much he owes to Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton and Tati.
But Atkinson's faux-Bond character, Johnny English, is another story. Like Mr. Bean, English is supremely confident about his role in the universe. Unlike Mr. Bean, he's almost suave and urbane, a duo of qualities that create lots of opportunities for him to be taken down a peg. And Atkinson's knack for physical comedy isn't even a question: There's a wonderful bit in Reborn in which English chases after, or perhaps dawdles after, an assassin skilled in the art of parkour -- at one point the evildoer sneaks behind English and flips over his shoulder, while the hapless agent executes a perfectly timed minuet of obliviousness.
But Johnny English Reborn never quite ignites, even though it starts out promisingly enough. The disgraced English -- allegedly, he did something really bad in Mozambique a few years back -- is lured out of exile by the big boss lady of the (fictional) MI7, a buxom, no-nonsense lass named Pegasus (played by a game Gillian Anderson). It turns out she needs information from an operative who will speak only to English, and from that first encounter, he learns that a gang of international assassins are planning to off the premier of China. In between hunting down baddies, English flirts with a behavioral psychologist, (played, fetchingly, by Rosamund Pike), talks down to his assistant-slash-minder Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), and sings the praises of a fellow agent, Ambrose (Dominic West), who, we know from the start, is bad news. "But he went to Eton!" English insists, willfully ignoring his colleague's obvious oiliness.
And still, Johnny English Reborn poops out. The director here is Oliver Parker, who also made the jaunty Oscar Wilde adaptation An Ideal Husband and, more recently, the bad-gal comedy St. Trinian's. (The script is by William Davies and Hamish McColl, based on characters created by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.) English's adventures take him from here to there: From MI7 HQ, where the movie's Q figure (played by Atkinson's fellow Black Adder alum Tim McInnerny) outfits him with the latest spy gear, including Semtex chewing gum; to a golf course, where he indulges in some silliness with a club; to Buckingham Palace, where he mistakes the queen for -- well, never mind.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where and how Johnny English Reborn goes wrong, but I recall having similar problems with the first Johnny English: I have vivid memories of John Malkovich as a mad wanna-be king, but Atkinson's English left a murkier fingerprint, and even now that he's been reborn, I still can't quite get a handle on him.
The problem, maybe, is that English is a character modeled on a concept rather than one built from the inside out, like Mr. Bean. Bond movies are practically spoofs of themselves to begin with -- it's hard to make fun of something that knows it's preposterous from the get-go. For that reason, it's a marvel that the Austin Powers movies work as well as they do. But Atkinson can't make Johnny English resonate in the same way. In fact, I much prefer Atkinson's turn as the fawning Nigel Small-Fawcett in Never Say Never Again. It's a small comic performance that sticks, while Johnny English Reborn is just Johnny English reheated.