Should I Watch..? 'Johnny English'
What's the big deal?
Johnny English is an action comedy film released in 2003 and is loosely based on a similar character star Rowan Atkinson played in a series of commercials for Barclaycard in the nineties. The film is a parody of spy films in general, especially James Bond films, and features Atkinson in the title role—a bumbling secret agent called into action to protect the Crown Jewels from a power-hungry thief. The film also stars Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller and John Malkovich and was directed by Peter Howitt. While the film received a mixed reception from critics, the film was popular with audiences with global takings in excess of $160 million. Its popularity led to the release of two sequels—Johnny English Reborn and Johnny English Returns—in 2011 and 2018 respectively. The character of English is notable for being similar in style to Atkinson's other comic character Mr Bean who has featured in his own movies.
What's it about?
Kindhearted but dim-witted Johnny English is a spy working for MI7 who is assigned desk duties while dreaming of one day being a heroic field operative. After Agent One is accidentally killed in the field by English, the remaining MI7 agents are all killed at a bombing at Agent One's funeral. With no other option, the head of MI7 known as Pegasus is forced to insert English into active duty on an assignment to thwart a plot to steal the recently restored Crown Jewels which are on display at the Tower Of London.
After an unexplained loss of power at the exhibition, English discovers that the jewels have indeed been stolen from under his very nose. English and his assistant Angus Bough begin to investigate the theft and uncover possible links to the beautiful but mysterious Lorna Campbell and French businessman Pascal Sauvage who oversaw the restoration of the jewels. But can English overcome his own ineptitude to recover the jewels and bring the thief to justice or will he embarrass MI7 on a global stage?
Pascal Edward Sauvage
Oliver Ford Davis
Archbishop Of Canterbury
Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & William Davies
Release Date (UK)
11th April, 2003
Action, Comedy, Spy
What's to like?
Anyone who is already familiar with Atkinson's slightly off-putting Bean could be forgiven for thinking that Johnny English is another waste of time but thankfully, it's much funnier than you might think. The film feels tailor-made for Atkinson who is allowed to actually cut loose and he delivers a performance that is both charming and wonderfully slapstick. The film gives him plenty of opportunities to poke fun at the well-worn 007 stereotype and sure enough, the film feels like a cross between the more modern Bond films and the sort of comedy you'd get from Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. Granted, it's nothing ground-breaking but it's good to see Atkinson playing the sort of comedic role that is befitting of a talent such as his.
But he isn't the only cast member to benefit from the film - Malkovich appears in a rare comedic role (the only other comedy role I can think of is the surrealist Being John Malkovich in which he mostly plays an exaggerated version of himself) and acquits himself quite well, despite the over-the-top French accent. The film also benefits from not looking cheap - it feels like a big-budget production instead of the corner-cutting that is occasionally detected in many British films. Regardless of the strength of the character or narrative, it has an authenticity that other spy parodies might lack. It feels like the genuine article, which only makes it funnier.
- Like Bond, English also drives an Aston Martin - in this case, the DB7 Vantage. Interestingly, the car seen on screen actually belongs to Atkinson who is a notorious car-lover and racing driver in his spare time.
- Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were also responsible for writing a number of recent Bond films from The World Is Not Enough to Spectre. They also wrote the first draft for the forthcoming Bond film No Time To Die.
- Although the character is essentially the same as that which featured in the Barclaycard commercials, that character had a different name - Richard Latham. The character of Bough also featured in the adverts although he was played by Henry Naylor.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, there are a number of missed opportunities in the film that prevent it from being a classic film. Imbruglia, making her feature film debut here, reminds us that she's probably better suited to acting in soaps (her career began in the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours). She looks every inch the sexy spy sidekick but you never buy into her character, reducing her role to underused eye-candy. The film's narrative isn't deep enough to sustain a film of any real substance, meaning that Johnny English rushes past in less than an hour and a half and much of it is sadly forgettable. It has the odd scene that makes you laugh but it's generally agreeable instead of hilarious.
And without meaning to demean the film at all, the Bond films have plenty of parody cover versions out there already which makes the film feel sadly redundant. The early Bonds were spoofed by the original Casino Royale in 1967 and later on by Mike Myers' supremely silly Austin Powers series. Laterly, we've had efforts like The Spy Who Dumped Me and the simply named Spy, both of which subvert the genre with female characters taking the lead. In an overcrowded subgenre, I'm struggling to see where Johnny English fits in or why it deserves to stand out from the others. It doesn't push itself very hard, making it feel lazy and content to occupy the middle ground instead of develop its ideas and scenarios further to milk every drop of content from the script.
Should I watch it?
It's good for a quick giggle but this silly spy spoof doesn't do much to hold your attention or interest for very long. Atkinson is both funnier and more enjoyable here than he is as his other famous character Bean but the film feels content to rest on the reputation of its leading man instead of striving for any real quality. This could and should have been better but as it is, it's an adequate time-passer that young families can enjoy.
Great For: families with young children, anyone who hated Mr Bean, anyone who dislikes the more contemporary Bond films
Not So Great For: breaking the mold for spy comedies, Daniel Craig, Barclaycard
What else should I watch?
One thing you can give credit for to the Johnny English series is its consistency - all three films earned roughly the same amount of money each time (the third film only made $158 million as opposed to $160 million) while also earning similar reviews from critics. The films are simply too similar to each other to really stand out and none of them match the level seen in films like Austin Powers. Hell, if Die Another Day was played for laughs than it would have been a parody Bond film! While I haven't gotten around to the third film yet (it's not exactly high on my To See list), the second film is just as goofy and silly as this but at least it has a better script and lasts longer than a sneeze.
The Bond films have been the subject of parodies and pastiches since the character debuted in 1962's Dr No. While certainly not the first, 1967's Casino Royale is a disappointing and often baffling parody featuring David Niven as one of many Bonds in the film which is a loose reworking of Fleming's original novel. The 1965 low-budget parody Dr Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine would later achieve cult status thanks to the appearance of Vincent Price in the lead and over-the-top sexuality and would even be followed by a sequel the following year. It was especially popular in Italy which had its own series of Bond rip-offs at the time - Secret Agent 077 was the featured character in three films featuring American Ken Clark as secret agent Dick Malloy (or Maloy) in what were called 'spaghetti spy' films. The character 077 would also pop up in later films although Clark only made the three official films.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox