Let’s face it: The spy spoof is a redundancy. The James Bond franchise descended into self-parody decades ago and shows no sign of moving anywhere else. The bumbling agent Latham, Rowan Atkinson’s entry into this unnecessary genre, was originally only intended to fill one-minute credit-card commercials, before he was renamed Johnny English and launched onto the big screen in 2003. It has taken his producers almost a decade to mount a sequel to a project born of such unpromising origins. The world is not exactly waiting with bated breath for Johnny English Reborn.
But’s that's okay, because like the incompetent spy himself, this is a comedy that will sneak up on the skeptical and defy low expectations, producing something smart enough to neatly balance the thrills and the yuks.
We begin in – where else? – the mountains of Tibet, where a traumatized Johnny English has retreated to a monastery to learn self-discipline after some fiasco in Mozambique that cost him his knighthood and got him fired from British Intelligence. Recalled to London because a rogue CIA agent insists he will only negotiate with English, the spy is given his assignment by a snooty female boss (Gillian Anderson) with a cat and trotted along to the “toy shop” where he is outfitted with various amazing gadgets including a voice-directed Rolls Royce. So far, director Oliver Parker and writers William Davies and Hamish McColl (working with characters created by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) seem to think satire consists merely of reproducing clichés. Exotic locale? Check. Spectacular technology? Check. Person with weird thing for cats? Check.
But as Johnny sets off to meet the CIA agent in Hong Kong, we find ourselves not merely in the glittering Macau casino but also in a fleabag Kowloon hotel that looks surprisingly like, well, a fleabag Kowloon hotel.
Gradually, the film asserts its own personality with a storyline that eschews the figure of a master villain plotting to take over the world in favour of an assassination attempt on the Chinese premier engineered by a traitorous British agent (a roguish Dominic West) helped along by a chilling Chinese cleaning lady (an unstoppable Pik Sen Lim). It’s not wildly original but it stands on its own effectively enough to actually build the suspense viewers need to care about the outcome – when not simply enjoying a wheelchair race through the streets of London or a shootout in a careening gondola lift in the Swiss Alps.
On the comedy side, Atkinson fans might feel that there are too few bits of his vintage clowning, too few moments like the one where he silently disrupts a meeting with the Prime Minister through his disastrous experiments with the mechanism that raises and lowers his chair, but the point here is to stop star turns from hijacking the film.
Using the humiliation of that episode in Mozambique as his back story, Atkinson successfully builds some kind of character beyond the clown, a man whose contradictory mix of sly self-regard and repeated cock-ups masks a basic insecurity. That then neatly justifies his otherwise improbable relationship with the film’s love interest, the secret-service psychologist Kate (Rosamund Pike). In Daniel Kaluuya’s agent Tucker, an earnest neophyte who sees through Johnny’s delusions but is too polite to say anything, Atkinson has found a lovely straight man, who oh-so-delicately keeps his place while the funny man does the business. The strength of their on-screen relationship is one of several things that keep this comedy on track.
Johnny English Reborn is funny enough to make you laugh and plausible enough, in an exploding-umbrella type of way, to make you care. Not bad for the sequel to a jumped-up credit-card commercial.
Johnny English Reborn
- Directed by Oliver Parker
- Written by William Davies and Hamish McColl
- Starring Rowan Atkinson, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominic West and Rosamund Pike
- Rating: PG