Essentially, this is a collection of gags. Most of them, as you’d expect from Rowan Atkinson, are of the physical variety. Some are without doubt laugh out loud funny, but others feel rather tired and predictable. Overall, this is a diverting enough third outing for the Johnny English character, but it lacks zing, and it’s certainly not really breaking new ground in story telling or jokes, despite some attempts to update the plot for modern times.
Said plot isn’t really the point here, but for the sake of setting the scene let’s just say that Johnny is plucked from a job teaching school kids how to be spies and brought back into the MI7 fold to thwart an attack on Britain’s cyber security. He’s aided by trusty sidekick Bof (Ben Miller), dallies with Russian spy Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko), confronts American cyber villain Jason (Jake Lacy), and hopes to get back in the good books of the UK prime minister (Emma Thompson).
Some things work. I liked Johnny’s rapport with his student spies in the opening sequence, and soon after we are treated to a surprise when our hero meets three other retired spies, in the forms of Charles Dance, Edward Fox and Michael Gambon. A prolonged sequence in which Johnny conducts what he thinks is a virtual reality raid on his enemy’s stronghold has some lovely moments. A knight’s armour and too much grease also evoke a laugh, as does an extra strength climbing suit when its power is turned off.
So let’s not be churlish here and dismiss the entire escapade. Still, I was only entertained here and there, and the question is why so. And I think the answer lies in the whole idea of this character, and who he follows in the cinematic pantheon. Of course Johnny English is a parody of James Bond, and here that link is made with granite like strength, courtesy of an Aston Martin, more spy gadgets than you can shake a stick at, “Bond girl” Olga Kurylenko and evocative 007 flourishes in the soundtrack.
And what’s the template for such a parody? Is it Mike Myers’ Austin Powers movies of the 1990’s? I think not. I reckon you have to go back another 20 years, and look at Peter Sellers, one of the greatest comic actors of the 20th century. Surely Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau is what Johnny English is all about. Clouseau is a crime fighter, swept up in delusions of his own skill and wit. He is a bumbling fool who manages to win only by chance, much to the intense frustration of his boss. Clouseau’s pomposity and stupidity are wonderful, as is his physical humour, often delivered through his love of disguises. Need I say more? The parallels are unavoidable. Clouseau of the 1970’s equals English of the 2000’s, on the other side of the English Channel.
And as I was watching this latest Johnny English film I found myself thinking more and more of Sellers (of whom I admit I’ve been a fan since an early age) and that made me realise why this new film felt so flat. I’d seen it all before, and done better.
This is not to decry the talent of Rowan Atkinson. In bringing us Mr Bean (especially in the early outings) and Blackadder, Atkinson richly deserves his rewards. He’s also showed us his true dramatic range in depicting another French detective, Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, on the screen. Atkinson is good, indeed at times very very good. In my book though, Sellers was brilliant. And that’s always a hard act to follow.