- Johnny English Strikes Again
- Directed by David Kerr
- Written by William Davies
- Starring Rowan Atkinson and Olga Kurylenko
- Classification PG; 88 minutes
What, I wonder in all earnestness, is the cultural legacy of the Johnny English spy spoofs? Do they have admirers? “English-heads” or “Johnnies,” who shore up the ranks of some secret cult fandom, who thrill to any spectacle of British comic Rowan Atkinson in any sort of non-Mr. Bean-related comic duress? Are there families who gather around the television to watch 2011’s Johnny English Reborn as some sort of annual ritual? Do these movies linger in the minds of those who watch them? When Ben Miller appears as the super-spy sidekick Bough in the new one, am I supposed to feel a gleeful charge of recognition, as an old favourite rears his head for another bit of capering?
Rhetorical questions, perhaps. And doubly so because the answers hardly matter. Johnny English Strikes Again, the third entry in the franchise, strings together gag after gag after gag at such a relentless clip that it’s hard to do anything but double over laughing. These films aren’t made to be remembered. They’re meant to exhaust themselves in their exultant silliness, draining like an overstuffed whoopee cushion.
Johnny English Strikes Again is, in the British parlance, a trifle. And not an altogether bad one, at that. As in the 2003 original, Strikes Again begins with a bit of “designated survivor”-style plotting. A cyber-attack on the British Secret Service compromises all active agents, leaving the top brass little option but to call back Johnny English (Atkinson), who has retired from fieldwork to teach spycraft to private-school children. Paired with his more sober-minded man-at-hand (Miller), English must drive a wedge between the thoughtless Prime Minister (Emma Thompson, who is perfectly unlikeable in a savoury, scenery-chewing way) and the villainous Silicon Valley tech guru Jason Volta (Jake Lacy, just plain unlikeable) who is vying for control of Britain’s public-works infrastructure.
A chilling warning about the pitfalls of public-private partnerships is mere subtext here. Strikes Again is thankfully given over to its string of comic tableaus, which Atkinson executes with the consummate grace and showmanship of an old pro desperate to cash a cheque. One early sequence sees English and his accomplice undercover as British waiters at a swanky French Riviera resto, attempting to swipe a suspect’s cellphone. As misfortunes mount, English remains totally devoted to the part, attempting to stay the course as the mission (quite literally) goes up in flames. That Atkinson, like English, can commit so fully to the gag is ultimately the essence of his appeal – the severity of the situation barely registers on his stony, slightly sagging, Buster Keatonish visage.
Another extended sequence, in which English unknowingly ambles out of a virtual-reality simulator and into the streets of London, is nothing short of revelatory. (Really.) Recalling show-stopping set-pieces in Tony Scott’s time-travelling 2006 sci-fi thriller Déjà Vu and Luc Besson’s more recent space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, here two distinct spaces are effortlessly collapsed onto one another, such that English’s seemingly accomplished execution of a virtual training mission maps (with hilarious effect) onto the real world. So when he believes he’s assaulting armed goons with two sharpened katanas, he’s actually bludgeoning a barista with a pair of floppy French baguettes. The notion behind the bit is novel, but the execution is brilliant.
Most refreshingly, Johnny English Strikes Again is the rare secret-agent film that feels wholly unself-conscious. Sure, there are ample nods to 007. It cribs its plot from Skyfall and recasts Quantum of Solace “Bond girl” Olga Kurylenko as a rival Russian spy. But the latest Bond cycle – combined with the escalating archness of the Mission: Impossible franchise, the emergence of the brutish and nasty Kingsman films, and sustained media criticism of the genre’s animating chauvinism – have pushed spy movies into a realm beyond parody. The Bond movies alone have become so conversant with their own tropes and clichés that they seem less like capable thrillers and more like critical essays on a previous generation’s capable thrillers. Johnny English skips the wink-nudge shtick, acknowledges the silliness inherent in the very idea of a suave one-man army restoring world order, and gets on with the business of being funny.
These films may not linger, or leave some indelible mark on the culture as a whole. But they’re genuinely amusing and wholly unclever, in a way that significantly restores my faith in the pure, gut-busting appeal of a man in a full suit of armour falling down a flight of stairs. Trifles, perhaps. But to rework Samuel Johnson’s famous remark on the enduring appeal of the English capital: He who is tired of watching a ripped-on-methamphetamines Rowan Atkinson pulsate on a French dance floor to the beat of Euro-trance club banger Sandstorm is truly tired of life.