Johnny English starts off with a really cool Robbie Williams tune, splendidly capturing the feel of a song from a real 1960s spy flick. This cut is played over some opening credits that cleverly (albeit cheaply) recall the old Maurice Binder titles than no self-respecting trendy ’60s film dared eschew. Unfortunately, this opening is followed by the movie itself — and Johnny English is everything you might expect from a film based on a series of TV commercials.
It’s not mind-bogglingly bad, but unless you’re one of those people who burst out laughing the moment you see Rowan Atkinson, it’s not all that funny. The problem is that while a 30-to-60-second commercial with a one-joke premise works fine, that same single chuckle just can’t sustain even an 88-minute-short movie.
Johnny English offers a kind of a plot: All the good secret agents have been killed — largely thanks to Mr. Bean’s … er … excuse me, Johnny English’s bungling — leaving the invincibly stupid English the only agent left to take up the slack. Now, it’s one thing for English to be the ueber-screw-up, but in this film he’s actually — and frequently — the cause for serious harm (and even death) befalling other characters. Sure, his dangerous clumsiness is an outgrowth of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, but Sellers and Pink Panther auteur Blake Edwards understood that the harm should always come from another source, not from the hero himself. In A Shot in the Dark (the best of the Pink Panther films), numerous characters meet their demise in ways related to Clouseau, but in each case, it’s because those characters are in the way of attempts on Clouseau’s life by his boss and nemesis, Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom).
One of the first gags in Johnny English has our antihero inadvertently shooting and paralyzing a hapless secretary with a dart gun — and then trying to make sure no one notices his culpability. Personally, I found this more troubling than funny, simply because it doesn’t fit the supposedly light tone of the movie. It might work in a true black comedy, but Johnny English doesn’t have the nerve to go that route.
There’s more plot, incomprehensible though it is: John Malkovich (sporting a French accent so bad that it makes the one adopted by Jon Voight in Anaconda sound like the genuine article), a billionaire who’s made his fortune running prisons, wants to be crowned king of England so he can turn the British Isles into one huge jail. It makes very little sense, but then, it probably doesn’t intend to.
There are some occasionally funny bits — the best ones generally involving Malkovich’s reactions to his adversary’s cosmic idiocy — but not enough to make the movie more than mildly entertaining. But oftentimes, Johnny English is not even that. Once again, screenwriters have wedged the word “felch” into a script (not once, but twice), but this bit of sexual esoterica has by now lost its shock value. Plus, the gags are all laboriously built-up and invariably lead to exactly the pay-off you expect. This might have cut the mustard in a pre-Austin Powers world, but no more.
Most of the acting is indifferent, with singer Natalie Imbruglia taking the prize for most stilted performance. The manic, otherworldly charm that graced Atkinson’s performances as Mr. Bean is replaced by his stupid arrogance here, and it wears thin pretty quickly. I kept hoping he’d get a turkey stuck on his head (as he did in the memorable Mr. Bean Christmas show), but the only turkey in evidence here is the film itself.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke