The bumbling Johnny English was made to take the piss out of James Bond, but with time he’s grown ever more like the British super-spy. After writing Pierce Brosnan’s final films as Bond, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade created Johnny English as an affectionate mockery, working with screenwriter William Davis. Purvis and Wade returned to Bond with Casino Royale (and subsequently cowrote all the Daniel Craig incarnations), while Davis continued the adventures of 007’s clownish cousin. He wrote the story for the 2011 sequel Johnny English Reborn and the screenplay for Johnny English Strikes Again, this reboot that brings the retired MI7 agent back into the fold.
While the original 2003 film remains the funniest, and Reborn has the best action, Johnny English Strikes Again serves as the best showcase for star Rowan Atkinson. Davis seems to have resurrected the character primarily to provide Atkinson with a greatest hits reel, one that incorporates aspects of the comedian’s other signature characters. Why else would the climactic G12 summit be held in a Scottish castle if not to get Atkinson into a suit of armor to recall Black Adder? Or putting English in a high-energy dance club so Atkinson can bust out his Mr. Bean moves? There’s even a cameo from Michael Gambon, who played Georges Simenon’s famous detective Jules Maigret with puckish charm, a role that Atkinson now inhabits with deadly seriousness on British TV.
Director David Kerr also is a veteran of British television, having directed the twist-driven anthology series Inside No. 9 and the mordant back-of-house restaurant sitcom Whites, and he engineers Atkinson’s intricate routines with clockwork precision. That said, his first feature film has little to offer anyone not already attuned to modestly absurdist British comedy. The Johnny English series doesn’t have the garish glee of Austin Powers, nor does it upend genre mythology like Paul Feig’s exuberant Spy. It’s as safe and formulaic as many of the Bond films themselves, always reasserting the British steadfastness and gumption that its villains scorn.
Bratty Silicon Valley wunderkind Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) wants to make Britain great again, and cites the loss of its empire as his justification to seize power, which is the same reasoning used by John Malkovich’s French usurper from the original film. Their targets may be different (information technology versus the monarchy), but each decries the decline of British political influence and global status. The rise of Bond, who embodies British core values, has long functioned as a kind of cultural compensation. So any agent of Bond’s ilk, even one as cloddish as English, still gets portrayed as lionhearted, possessing the same never-say-die dignity of his dashing counterpart.
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Each Johnny English film has a different take on the character, but they share a few qualities in common: He’s unwaveringly loyal, stubbornly persistent and only vaguely aware of how much chaos he creates in his dogged defense of the United Kingdom. The first film finds humor in the contrast between how English views himself (as a suave, implacable Bond) and his real status as a low-level desk jockey. In Reborn, he becomes the kind of spy he had always imagined, a transformation akin to when the nerdy hero of the action comedy series Chuck has an espionage databank downloaded into his brain. In both cases, the characters are provided with a master spy’s skill set, but lack the cynicism engendered by a lifetime in the secret service.
Johnny English Strikes Again makes no mention of any previous adventures, simply making him a decommissioned agent who indulges his love of spycraft by passing on arcane knowledge to eager students, 12-year-olds at a boarding school where he is supposed to be teaching them geography. Called back into active duty after a cyberattack reveals the identities of all current MI7 agents, the decidedly out-of-date English uses his old-school knowledge to track down Volta and unplug him from the world’s power grid.
Going analog to fight a digital villain is a plot line in Skyfall, and if the Russian agent who becomes English’s reluctant ally looks familiar, it’s because she’s played by Olga Kurylenko from Quantum of Solace. The makers of Johnny English Strikes Again would love it if audiences considered this film a lighthearted Bond substitute during a fallow period, but this wafer-thin sendup is for devoted fans only, with action set pieces more attuned to Atkinson’s comedy of misplaced arrogance than Craig’s quick-witted muscularity.
Taken on its own terms, there is much to enjoy, especially Emma Thompson as an extravagantly exasperated prime minister sporting Hillary Clinton’s pant suits and Madeleine Albright’s brooch collection. Most welcome is the return of Bough (Ben Miller), pronounced by English as “Boff,” the most capable sidekick an out-of-his-depth agent could ever have. No matter the pitfalls or pratfalls, Bough views English as a true hero of the realm, a spy who may not know when it’s time to come in from the cold, but still serves Britain with love.