Johnny English Review

Spy parody films nosedived into the dregs of comedy once James Bond started storming the box office. Spy Hard with Leslie Nielson was a high-profile farce and the Austin Powers trilogy that soon followed in its parodical footsteps is a classic Americanisation of the British spy and the sex-crazed iconography of the Bond franchise. Johnny English is the family-friendly induction of the spy genre. It comes full circle. From Rowan Atkinson brushing shoulders with a late-stage Sean Connery outing as the 007 agent to Atkinson parodying it in his very own comedy vehicle, life comes at this actor thick and fast. From secretary to the secret agents to head of the confidential agency that is wiped out at a funeral for the aptly named Agent One.

Johnny English, played by Atkinson, is the last man for the job. Quite literally, in fact. Simplicity plays its part in the comedy and in the story. Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) dictates his reasoning for villainy to the camera, more or less. His unprompted turn of villainy comes not from a desire for wealth but a solid and legal claim to the throne. It is just a shame he hopes to usurp the Queen and turn England into a large prison. Plus, he’s French. Johnny English is frequent in its knockback against the French and even sillier when it comes to implicating the villain in this piece. Two henchmen in the employment of Sauvage and the man is ruled out despite English and his correct guess. Even then, it does not matter. Naturally, the rogue English will take him on anyway. Audiences need to be told this and, unfortunately, Johnny English cannot trust its story to toe the line of subtlety at least once or twice.

Instead, the opportunity to make pratfall after pratfall of Atkinson’s character is a necessity. His hapless struggle finds him in the right place at the right time. This is a story of convenience rather than one thought through with many perspectives. Mighty and accidental it may be, English’s characteristics and lack of growth replicate the country he is named after. Big-headed and believed to be useful in a fight, Johnny English presents the facile and smug agent as a man to be reckoned with not for his abilities but because of what the lack of abilities could cause. Knocking out the wrong man, an inability to work a weapon yet somehow holding within him the knowledge of classical spy features and suave wordplay. It is the binary opposite of competency and incompetency blurring together in Airplane-like fashion.

Harmlessly light and fluffy, Johnny English relies on the same few gags over and over. The results are a responsible feature with a solid character for Atkinson to rely on in later works. It is no Mr. Bean, but that has the beauty of silence to the character. Adding dialogue to the bumbling antics of a special agent is one way of mocking the Bond franchise. At least Johnny English captures the wild tones of the franchise too. The maniacal super villains, in this instance, are mild-mannered fools that dare to strike at the heart of English culture. Only one man can stop them. Director Peter Howitt, whose work here is admirably forgettable. He does nothing but mark Atkinson as a big-name comic. That is what he is there to do, and, like everything in Johnny English, does it amicably.

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