JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN Review
Fans of British television comedy will have grown up with the unique wit and physical presence of Rowan Atkinson. Emerging from sketch show NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK NEWS, he partnered with writer Richard Curtis (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, LOVE ACTUALLY) to create Edmund Blackadder, the effeminate, awkward bastard son of a fictional King Richard IV in the popular sit-com THE BLACK ADDER. The real genius came in the second season when Ben Elton was brought on as co-writer, Atkinson moved into a solely acting role and his character transformed into a smart, cynical Elizabethan lord, who was confidante to the Queen and surrounded by imbeciles he could bully and kick in the backside. After four seasons, the hugely successful series did what all good British sitcoms do and quit while ahead, only for Atkinson and Curtis to reemerge with a new creation that would prove immeasurably more successful the world over - Mr. Bean.
At the same time, Atkinson also starred in a long-running series of TV commercials for Barclaycard, playing a smooth-talking, yet clumsy secret agent, upon who the character of Johnny English was based. Ironically, Atkinson's first big screen appearance was also as a clutsy embassy staffer providing precious little assistance to 007 himself in 1983's unofficial Bond film NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. The first JOHNNY ENGLISH film was released in 2003, and broadly parodied the Bond series with Atkinson in the title role and John Malkovich as his villainous adversary. The film was a surprise hit at the time, trading largely on Atkinson's fame as Mr. Bean, so it comes as no surprise that it should spawn a sequel. What is surprising, however, is why it has taken 8 years for a second installment to reach our screens and why, during that lengthy hiatus, the writers were apparently unable to come up with anything better than the half-hearted laugh vacuum they have served up.
It is the present day and Johnny English (Atkinson) has been disavowed from MI7 after an operation in Africa went horribly wrong. Having spent the last 5 years living in seclusion in a Tibetan monastery, English is recalled to active duty when a CIA operative hiding out in Hong Kong insists he is the only agent he can trust with highly confidential information relating to a proposed assassination attempt on the Chinese Premier. Pegasus (Gillian Anderson), head of MI7, has no alternative but to reinstate the hapless agent, with predictably disastrous consequences.
The production has assembled a fairly impressive roster of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN is directed by Oliver Parker, the well-respected helmsman of such "serious" literary adaptations as AN IDEAL HUSBAND with Rupert Everett, DORIAN GRAY, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and made history as the first director to cast a black actor (Laurence Fishburne) as Othello onscreen in his highly regarded 1995 version. It must be noted, however, that Parker is also responsible for both recent ST. TRINIAN'S films, and it was presumably these credits that won him the job of guiding this project into existence.
Onscreen, Atkinson is joined not only by Gillian Anderson as a low-rent "M", but also former Bond girl Rosamund Pike (DIE ANOTHER DAY), who here plays psychotherapist, observer and potential love interest to English as he returns to the front lines of international espionage. It has been some years since THE WIRE but it always seems a rare treat to see Dominic West employing his own British accent, and here as the real Bond stand-in, MI7's pride-and-joy, Ambrose, he is at his most debonair and must deal with English as well as the ladies fawning after him. Elsewhere there is BLACKADDER regular Tim McInnerny, acclaimed Ukranian actor Mark Ivanir as well as newcomer Daniel Kaluuya as English's inexperienced, yet enthusiastic partner.
What follows is rambling and haphazard at the best of times, with a thinly cobbled together plot that serves as little more than an excuse to have Atkinson prat around like a fool. There is a long-running joke where numerous attempts to apprehend a sinister Chinese hit woman result in English repeatedly beating up the wrong elderly bystander, culminating in him rugby-tackling the Queen. The film's first act takes place largely in Hong Kong, and although there are action sequences positioned nicely on Kowloon rooftops, descending bamboo scaffolding and eventually in and out of the harbour, they never fully entertain as much as they should.
A few cheap chuckles aside, there was precious little enjoyment to be had and I was constantly pestered by why a film apparently 9 years in the making felt so slapdash and rushed. Reports seem to suggest that the film has been playing very well to younger audiences, with families delighting in the fact that there is a film that can be enjoyed equally by parents and their children alike. While it is true the jokes in JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN certainly work only on one level if indeed at all, there is precious little of Atkinson's Tati-esque physical humour on show to reward his long-standing supporters. One can only imagine what this project could have become in the hands of a Curtis or an Elton.
JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN is currently on general release in Hong Kong and the UK, and opens in the USA this Friday.
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