By Colin Covert
Finding a fresh comic approach to the often-parodied category of spy films is no small challenge, but Rowan Atkinson isn’t new to the game. The veteran British star has always had a flair for dry idiocy, from the dark historical parody of his classic Blackadder series to the anything-for-a-laugh larks of Mr. Bean.
In Johnny English Strikes Again, he reaches back for another brand, making a third outing as the bumbling secret agent he created 15 years earlier. The latest film gives incompetent, clumsy Johnny a new lease on life, albeit a somewhat stiff, arthritic one.
The story line sets up a threat to established international order through a sinister young Silicon Valley tech mastermind (Jake Lacy). The film’s comedically novel, if not too subtle subtext is the battle between the digital new kids and the analogue old school. What’s really going on is a mocking war between generations, with the increasingly powerless holdovers from a bygone era being passed in cultural power by young savvy successors.
English, who views himself as dashing, debonair and audacious, has clearly aged beyond his prime, which the film addresses directly. Having outlived his usefulness in the espionage world, he has become a schoolteacher, instructing his young charges on geography while slipping in clandestine training in spy craft and the sort of disguises that enable you to stand beside a wall and go invisible.
Being out of danger has done English a lot of good. He has mellowed, becoming the sort of inspirational mentor who would pack the classrooms at Hogwarts. That charming character note is a nice gift to younger viewers, who would certainly pay attention in his explosives class.
He is pulled back into the old spy game when MI7 encounters a personnel shortage, losing all its undercover operatives through a hacking breach. To carry out its latest mission, the fearsome prime minister (Emma Thompson, hooray!) calls in veterans from retirement. English, whose accident-riddled ineptitude has fallen down the government’s memory hole, is among the few candidates available.
As he awaits the job interview at headquarters, the competitors that he sits alongside are three notable actors well into their golden years. English wins the spot by mistake (as always) and caries antique equipment and attitudes against a redesigned, evolved world.
Back in action, he mercilessly ribs stereotypical tough guy super-spies. Immensely conceited and pompous, this ego on legs doesn’t understand, or at least doesn’t admit, his errors, haplessly causing calamities along the way. English is not the sort of operative who should be expected to remember which colour-coded container has the knockout pills and which has the pep pills. Or the difference between acting out a battle training programme in virtual goggles while inside the spy academy versus wandering outside and sightlessly walloping every civilian who crosses his path.
Atkinson has built a long career out of playing utter twits, inflicting stinging comic embarrassment upon blowhards who are undeterred by their own incompetence. He is comfortably at home as the film’s anti-007, turning daredevil action moments into effective physical comedy.
There are some solid sequences. English faces the story’s foreseeable Russian femme fatale (Olga Kurylenko, an actual Bond girl as Daniel Craig’s co-star in Quantum of Solace) as they race cars across curvaceous French country roads. English stick-shifts his classic roadster like a crazed speed demon, while her quiet little electric Mini whispers ahead. Guess who runs out of fuel first?
English, who is rather a guileless innocent around women, is especially laughable when he’s all dressed up as a suave man of the world. His attentions to the Russian spy turn flirtatious at a posh nightclub. He doesn’t make quite the impression he intended as the tiny paper umbrella in his drink becomes stuck in his nose, and his manic dance moves look like they’re about to give someone a broken elbow.
Still, this style of broad, camp comedy, while entertaining in smallish doses, does feel like a chore at length. Attractively shot though the film is, it palls. The klutzy English once again saves the day through sheer good luck. Viewers who want a happy ending for his latest exploit aren’t that fortunate. – Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/TNS
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