Whatever you do, don’t mention … Mozambique when you’re in the presence of … Johnny English. You’re certain to send the world-renowned British spy into eye-lid sputtering paroxysms of fear and regret. It was because of … Mozambique that Sir Johnny English is now merely … Agent Johnny English.
So be it. His nation needs him. And when MI7, now owned by Toshiba, calls, Johnny English — played by England’s own Rowan Atkinson — is at the ready. The mission this time? Find the triad known as Vortex and keep them from assassinating the Chinese premier on his trip to London. Complicating matters: one of the dastardly trio is a British-intelligence mole (or vole, depending on one’s dictionary).
Playing M to Atkinson’s Bond is Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), here called Pegasus, who has come into the agency to do away with the macho gun play that has defined men like English (something Judy Dench made plain to Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye—the post-Dalton reboot of the master franchise). And to make sure English loses his lone-wolf attitude, he’s given a partner, Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), a young agent eager to prove his mettle to the veteran know-it-all.
Of course everything goes all pear-shaped, with English unable to recognize what’s right in front of his face — that is, until the obvious becomes obvious even to him. Finally, his keener instincts, higher self, and one heckuva kiss from the lovely Rosamund Pike set everything right, even … Mozambique.
The Bond spoof is almost as old as the Bond films themselves — from the Derek Flint films to Dino’s Matt Helm, the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry creation Maxwell Smart, Spy Hard, and Mike Meyers’s Austin Powers. (Not to mention the one Bond film that was its own spoof: the David Niven/Woody Allen Casino Royale.) Barely a year or two passes without someone channeling 007.
And that’s the problem.
Much of Johnny English Reborn feels old, stale. The adventure begins with a chastened English seeking spiritual and physical renewal in a Thai-fighting camp — a play off the Rambo III opener that was parodied to greater effect in Charlie Sheen’s Hot Shots Part Deux. And shots to the crotch stopped being funny, well, in Hot Shots Part Deux (if not earlier, like late Benny Hill). Then there’s the running gag of restraining and beating the wrong person — inevitably an elderly woman. (Shades of virtually every movie Leslie Nielsen ever appeared in, with the possible exception of Forbidden Planet.)
There’s a hot-pursuit sequence that finds English in a souped-up wheelchair that inevitably brings to mind the go-cart chase in the Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Woody Allen Euro-farce What’s New Pussycat (which co-starred “a personal friend of Mr. James Bond,” Ursula Andress). And of course some of the more obvious gags are strictly Inspector Clouseau and Maxwell Smart. (In fact, I felt like I had just seen parts of this film and realized I was having flashbacks to the equally disappointing Get Smart starring Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway.)
There are a couple of genuinely laugh-out-loud set pieces, though. One mirrors the stunt-jumping eye-popper in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale (voted Best Bond Stunt of All Time by the Radio Times). Here the villain leaps across great chasms and rolls over obstacles covering wide swaths of territory in mere seconds, while English, employing the ancient Asian wisdom he imbibed during his Thai training, merely walks around stuff, takes elevators down buildings the acrobatic bad guy manages to scale, and otherwise employs the commonsensical means of negotiating spaces that any one of us would — and manages to keep up with his finely trained prey in the process. The cumulative effect of this “chase” is actually quite funny (Atkinson’s deadpan through it all helps).
There’s also a pneumatic chair gone wild during a very serious meeting with the British PM that had me (and my wife) in stitches. But we’re suckers for killer furniture.
It takes some real imagination to make this subgenre work anymore — which the Austin Powers flicks have for the most part displayed (even though the super-spy was based more on Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer than on Bond). Even though the Johnny English films have proved enormously successful overseas (Reborn has already made $83 million outside the U.S.), I doubt this will do much better than its predecessor (which grossed a mere $28 million in the States, but $129 million worldwide), especially since I’m sorry to say that, unless you’re a rabid fan, better wait until it hits DVD or cable.
Nevertheless, there are some actors I will pay to watch even in mediocre work. Atkinson is one of them, based largely on his magnificent TV work. And if there’s a Johnny English Part Trois, I’ll no doubt be there opening day. So here’s hoping the great comic’s U.S. film career is reborn soon.