It’s been eight years since Johnny English grossed $161 million worldwide although the movie only scored $28 million of that domestically. In that first installment, Rowan Atkinson starred as the titular incompetent spy, who saved the Crown Jewels from the likes of John Malkovich and protected the very throne of England itself while earning himself a knighthood in the process. This time around, there will be no Malkovich, which seems rather odd (since he’s almost exclusively appeared in a load of crap lately) and also quite like a missed opportunity. Finally, Malky had appeared in a fucking jewel thief movie, and the sequel can’t even bother to bring his character back for a quick cameo. What gives?
Malkovich or not, Johnny English Reborn is neither worth your time or money, and I regretfully state this after long expressing my undying affection for most things related to Rowan Atkinson as well as the realization that, at least on this side of the pond, the man is a very acquired taste. Of course, Johnny English Reborn doesn’t really need your Yankee dollars in the first place, for this movie has already grossed $85 million internationally. Put that in your snooty, well-cultured nostrils and snort it.
The main problem with this sequel (as well as its predecessor) is that parodying the James Bond spy genre has already been overdone in many instances, including the Get Smart television series (and recent movie), Cairo Nest of Spies, and (to a degree) the Naked Gun flicks. This is not to mention the Austin Powers franchise, which took “bumbling, incompetent spy” to a whole new level of inexplicable shaggability. Ultimately, the 007 movies already parody themselves with a cleverness that no other franchise could ever hope to attain, and the Johnny English franchise is merely another hopeful notch on the satirical belt. The British, however, love Atkinson unconditionally and will handsomely reward him for any big screen (or televised) appearance — even a wildly inferior one like Johnny English Reborn — that he chooses to make. On the positive side of things and as far as a (mostly) family-friendly alternative to the Halloween fare out there is concerned, watching Atkinson make a return as the eponymous, pompous super spy is an experience inarguably better than all of the kiddie flicks currently out there. It also meets the crotch-kicking quota as a matter of course.
Still, this movie isn’t so much a “rebirth” of the blissfully incompetent spy English as a cash-grab continuance of what came before. The hero is older but not necessarily wiser, and that’s also part of the presumed appeal, but it doesn’t quite work here. Since the conclusion of the first movie, English has been off the map. He messed up big time in Mozambique, lost his knighthood, and got booted out of the M17. Ginger fetishists will appreciate the presence of Gillian Anderson as the token “M”-esque character, Pamela Thornton, who begrudgingly reactivates the wayward spy and brings him back from a Tibetan monastery to stop some thugs who are hell bent on assassinating the Chinese premier. Offered one last chance to redeem himself, English receives some assistance from a sidekick trainee, Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), and a behavioral psychiatrist, Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike). Simon Ambrose (Dominic West) is also along for the ride as English’s cohort. All of these co-stars play it perfectly straight against Atkinson’s rubber-faced antics. Naturally and only by virtue of his own incompetence does English manage to save the entire world from annihilation; the now grey-haired spy would ideally pass on some of his wisdom to his trainee, but even Atkinson’s attempts at downplaying such moments are lost within the script.
For his part, Atkinson does what is expected of himself as one of the most enduring physical comedians alive today. He fucks up all of the high-tech gadgets and beats the hell out of himself after mistakenly ingesting a drug-like substance that (conveniently) releases Atkinson’s inner Bean. Again, Reborn will not make any new fans of Atkinson, but it shall somewhat satisfy his preexisting die-hard devotees yet also make them pine for the subversiveness of “Blackadder.” Atkinson is a master of tolerable, slightly sophisticated slapstick; but here, it feels overplayed and predictable instead of natural and well-rehearsed to the point of appearing ad-libbed.
Overall, Johnny English Reborn is a subpar comedy-action experience that not only seeks to take a few bites out of Bond but also takes a few swipes at Jason Bourne. It makes vain attempts to poke fun at the corporatization of everything, including movies and the British secret service itself, yet it also rakes in a few bucks in the process by selling out to Toshiba and such other product placement endorsements. In the end, however, this movie brings nothing new to the comedy-action, spy-thrilling table. It’s not silly enough to be a farce, and it’s not nearly inventive enough to justify its own existence in the first place. Skip this (re)incarnation of English and stick “Blackadder” or “Mr. Bean” in the DVD player instead.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.