Spy movie spoofs were all the rage back in the 60s, keying off the huge popularity of the James Bond franchise, which kicked off with ‘Dr. No.’ in 1962. As the films kept coming, and Bond’s persona became more clearly defined through the exquisite cool of Sean Connery, the secret agent quickly became ripe for mocking. ‘Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine,’ ‘Our Man Flint’ (with James Coburn), and ‘The Silencers’ (featuring Dean Martin as Matt Helm) come immediately to mind, as well as the 1967 ‘Casino Royale,’ which boldly adapted the Ian Fleming book by spoofing the Bond movies. But there were many more, as a quick look at Wikipedia reminds.
Things died down until Michael Myers spoofed the era in 1997’s ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’; more recently, the French had a go at it with ‘OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies’ in 2006. Between those two came ‘Johnny English’ in 2003, Rowan Atkinson’s first embodiment of the character.
As ‘Johnny English Reborn’ begins, the spy is in exile at a Shaolin monastery in China. He was a top operative for Britain’s (fictional) MI-7 spy shop, but things went wrong on an assignment in Mozambique, and he has spent years in seclusion as a result. Reluctantly, the agency calls him back into action because a CIA operative in Hong Kong insists he is the only one he will trust with confidential information. Things proceed apace from there, as Johnny does certain things right, and just as many things wrong.
What’s most fascinating to me, as someone with little intentional exposure to Atkinson over the years, is the perplexing combination of both good and bad elements in the movie.
On the positive side, ‘Johnny English Reborn’ plays well to children. Atkinson’s rubbery face always makes the little ones laugh, and I definitely heard plenty of giggling and tittering at the advance screening I attended. The production is handsomely mounted, with high production values, a multitude of international locations and committed actors doing their best to bring life to the material. Gillian Anderson (‘The X Files’) brings authoritarian snap to her role as Pegas, the head of MI-7, and Rosamund Pike plays a behavioral psychologist who is Johnny’s inevitable, if unlikely, romantic interest. Dominic West looks and sounds authentically like a charming, smooth secret agent as Ambrose, and Tim McInnery provides further comic relief as a low-rent “Q” stand-in.
Those good points are outweighed, at least for this adult, by the strange definition of the picture’s hero. While I haven’t seen the first film, in the sequel Johnny English is both a brilliant, incredibly capable agent as well as a bumbling idiot, and it’s impossible to reconcile the two. He’s fluent in multiple languages and physically adept; for example, somehow he’s able to outmaneuver the younger, more agile assassin who’s attempting to flee the scene of his crime in Hong Kong, hardly breaking a sweat while doing so.
I understand that it’s meant to poke fun at the fantasy of a secret agent who is always ready for whatever arises on the spur of the moment, always wins fights against physically tougher opponents, and so forth. It’s a bit creaky at this point but let the kids have their fun, right? In that spirit, I suppose, we’re meant to accept that Johnny English is occasionally stupid for no apparent reason other than the character needs to be taken down a peg.
But there is a creepy-crawly feeling about Johnny English that bugs me.
The supreme, unchanging arrogance of the character becomes wearing. The film has little to keep adults engaged, except to look at the pretty scenery, and to ponder why “our hero” never learns a lesson, never says he’s sorry, never credits anyone other than himself. It’s quite childish, and there’s no doubt that’s also why young ones may respond to Johnny English: he is one of them.
I’m just glad he’s not my kid.
‘Johnny English Reborn’ opens wide across the Metroplex today.