It would be understandable to assume that the one-two-three punch of the "Austin Powers
" trilogy would be the final word (for at least five years) on the genre of spy comedies. After all, what of interest could possibly be said on the topic that wasn't already exhausted by Mike Myers' loopy, spoof-charged hijinks? Apparently, nothing. Unimaginatively directed by Peter Howitt (2001's "Antitrust
"), "Johnny English" casts British comedian Rowan Atkinson (TV's "Bean" and 2002's "Scooby-Doo
") in the bumbling title role and expects him to do all the work. While Atkinson is at his offbeat best, the film he has been placed within is sorely routine and more often blase than not, its every joke telegraphed far in advance of its ultimate appearance.
When the rest of England's spies are killed in an explosion, the full responsibility of the job is placed on the shoulders of Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), an accident-prone doofus who daydreams of being a sexy, debonair hero, like James Bond. His latest mission is to protect the Crown Jewels, which are subsequently stolen by wealthy Frenchman Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich). Sauvage, who had his royal lineage stolen from him years ago, intends to take over the whole of England and turn it into a maximum security prison. Helping the inept Johnny English on his quest to expose Sauvage's criminal intent is trusty assistant Bough (Ben Miller) and sexy secret agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia).
There are two spectacularly funny scenes in "Johnny English." The first concerns Johnny confusing a real-life, tear-filled funeral internment and a staged one, with zany results. The other depicts Johnny mistaking a medical center and its well-meaning doctors, nurses, and patients for Sauvage's lair and its respective henchmen and hostages. Rowan Atkinson, wonderful in the kind of classic misfit role he usually plays, carries out these comic highlights with a deadpan sincerity that becomes all the more uproarious when he continues to dig himself a deeper hole in the face of each misstep. And the scenes are also notable for their freshness and their wit, two elements otherwise lacking in this decidedly lazy effort.
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies (the former two of which worked on 2002's "Die Another Day
"), the film fails to make the comedic cut. Most of the humor is not only clumsily predictable, but enormously juvenile, with unfunny jokes concerning fecal matter being flushed in Johnny's face and the Archbishop of Canterbury getting his underwear pulled down for a roomful of royal onlookers in an identity mix-up. Each scene is like its own little private skit, as Johnny attempts to do the right thing, screws it up, and then must make amends for his careless behavior. It gets old fast, not the least because it is so obvious and unchallenging in its comic possibilities.
As Johnny's loyal assistant, Bough (pronounced "Boff"), Ben Miller (2002's "Birthday Girl
") splendidly slides into the part of sidekick, while John Malkovich (1999's "Being John Malkovich
") puts on a silly French accent and hams it up as main villain Pascal Sauvage. In her acting debut, singer Natalie Imbruglia doesn't attract any negative attention as the beautiful Lorna Campbell, but also has little of note to do. At least she seems natural in front of the camera, avoiding the stilted mannerisms and unconvincing dialogue readings of some musicians-turned-actors (Madonna, anyone?).
The "Austin Powers
" films had their fair share of flaws, to be sure, but they were enlightened with some truly original, "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" setpieces. "Johnny English" pales in comparison, abounding with limper jokes and less energy, and that's even while taking into account the welcome prowess of star Rowan Atkinson, who gives Mike Myers a run for his money as #1 spy spoof hero. Unfortunately, in the case of "Johnny English," #1 simply isn't good enough when everything surrounding its star is instantly forgettable fodder.
Further proof that the MPAA has no rhyme, reason, or consistence behind its ratings, last year's "Mr. Deeds
" was rated PG-13 for "rear nudity" (which lasted for all of about 10 seconds), while "Johnny English" is rated PG for "comic nudity" (consisting of a close-up shot of rear nudity that lasts approximately 30 seconds, and closely followed by a scene in which Atkinson gyrates his tighty-whitey-clad pelvis in a sexual manner). I do not complain about the PG-rating "Johnny English" has been given because it deserves a PG-13, even if it might have been more appropriate; instead, I only bring it up as further proof why the old farts at the MPAA should hang up their witch-hunting profession and pass down the responsibility to someone younger and more in tune to today's audiences. It would help even more if their ratings were consistent from movie to movie, rather than an inexplicable game of "playing favorites."