Should I Watch..? 'Johnny English Reborn'
What's the big deal?
Johnny English Reborn is an action spy comedy film released in 2011 and is the sequel to the 2003 comedy Johnny English. The film stars Rowan Atkinson as the titular character, a disgraced and bumbling member of the British Intelligence agency MI7 who is brought back into the fold to help foil an assassin's plot. The film also stars Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Kaluuya and Richard Schiff and was directed by Oliver Parker. Like its predecessor, the film is a spoof of spy movies and the James Bond series in particular. Despite a mixed reception from critics when it was released, the film was a success at the box office with global takings of more than $160 million. It would be followed by Johnny English Strikes Again in 2018.
What's it about?
Bumbling British secret agent Johnny English has been in hiding at a Buddhist temple in Tibet for the last five years after bungling an assignment to protect the new president of Mozambique. Unexpectedly, he is recalled back to London by MI7's new boss Pamela Thornton - codenamed Pegasus - who needs his help. They have been contacted by former CIA agent Titus Fisher who will only divulge his information to English regarding a threat to the Chinese Premier's life. Fisher reveals himself to be a member of a group called Vortex who not are planning to assassinate the Premier but were also responsible for English's earlier failure in Mozambique.
Now aware of the plot and of three special keys that unlock Vortex's secret weapon, English begins to lead the hunt for the other two keys alongside his new sidekick, eager rookie Colin Tucker. But after repeated failures to recover the keys as well as apprehend an elderly Asian woman linked to Vortex, English is assigned behavioural psychologist Kate Sumner to help English overcome his neuroses. Quickly falling for Kate, English faces not just a daunting assault on the supposedly impregnable La Bastion fortress in Switzerland but also the prospect of a mole in MI7...
Pamela Thornton - Pegasus
Release Date (UK)
7th October, 2011
Action, Comedy, Spy
What's to like?
Spy parodies have been around a long time now, from the kitsch Sixties adventures of The Man From UNCLE to Mike Myers' hugely successful Austin Powers series. And while they may be plenty of competition, Johnny English Reborn is content to play things very safe. For those know how brilliantly funny Atkinson can be, this feels like he's treading in familiar waters without stretching himself too much. While the film isn't exactly a laugh a minute, there's plenty of goofy charm and a more sedate pace to proceedings. It certainly the funniest film I can recall seeing based on a Barclaycard commercial, or at least on a par with the original.
One area where this film does trump the first is scope. The film feels much more ambitious than before with high-tech sets, amusing action sequences and a more recognisable cast. Kaluuya gives us a glimpse of the star he was destined to become while Anderson and Pike provide us with the sort of sexy starlets this type of production demands. But never forget that this is Atkinson's show and he performs with the same rubber-faced slapstick as he always has, making English feel like a cross between 007 and Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. There's plenty to enjoy here if you are prepared to switch your brain off.
- "Royce", English's own Rolls Royce Phantom Coupe, was developed specifically for the film and with Atkinson's own input. Being a notorious petrol-head, he asked BMW to put their 9.0 ltr V16 engine (an experimental design BMW were working on) into the Phantom Coupe. With only a handful of these engines in the world, the car is therefore unique. Her voice was provided by TV presenter Mariella Frostrup.
- The girl who English steals a motorcycle helmet from during the wheelchair chase is played by Lily Atkinson, Rowan's daughter. She also has a cameo in Rowan Atkinson's previous movie Mr Bean's Holiday.
- Coincidentally, Atkinson and Pike both made their feature film debuts in Bond movies. Atkinson first appeared on the big screen in Never Say Never Again while Pike made her debut in Die Another Day.
What's not to like?
On a personal level, I find the Mr Bean character incredibly tiresome and a little bit creepy - on a par with Paul Ruebens' Pee-Wee Herman. Thankfully, Johnny English Reborn has no hint of the mostly mute idiot but the film's reliance on over-acting means that nobody among the cast really has a straight face. Which is odd because the film isn't that funny. As I suggested earlier, the spy genre has gotten increasingly stale due to numerous comedic imitations and this film doesn't really provide us with anything we haven't seen before. Worse still, some of the jokes are worryingly predictable (such as English mistakenly beating up a random old woman instead of the Asian cleaning lady) and the narrative is also badly sign-posted throughout, despite being somewhat incoherent at times.
At its heart, the film is a exhausted slog through every spy cliche and stereotype we've seen dozens of times before. English doesn't stand out particularly as a strong character, not compared to Myers' aforementioned, larger-than-life Sixties swinger, so the film has to work harder to stay for long in the memory. And it simply doesn't, feeling instead as though it were made through contractual obligation instead of a desire to create a genuinely entertaining picture. It doesn't do much wrong but it doesn't set your world alight either so perhaps more forgiving viewers than myself will take away more from the film than I did.
Should I watch it?
Johnny English Reborn is a servicable and enjoyable comedy that never threatens to give your funny bone that much of a work-out. Atkinson's performance is wasted on a character that never stays in the memory for that long while the script needed many more jokes (and funnier ones as well) instead of making the ultimate villain of the piece far too predictable. It's briefly amusing in places but far too inconsistent and it doesn't give other spy spoofs anything to worry about.
Great For: the whole family, Atkinson's profile, undemanding viewers on a Sunday evening
Not So Great For: British Intelligence who must get sick of being portrayed as morons in the movies, anyone looking for a riotous comedy, spy spoofs in general
What else should I watch?
The first Johnny English was an equally servicable comedy that seemed to strike a chord with audiences, making almost exactly the same at the box office as this movie. The film sets English up as an inept desk-bound employee of MI7 who suddenly finds himself thrust into action when the Crown Jewels are stolen by John Malkovich's slimy French noble Pascal Sauvage. And as fate would have it, Johnny English Strikes Again also appears to have left the critics unimpressed while still making around the same amount at the box office. I've heard of films being formulaic but it would seem that Atkinson's second-favourite character is taking things too literally.
Atkinson, to British viewers, will always and forever be associated with the TV series Blackadder but he has made some memorable appearances in other films as well. From the nervous vicar in Four Weddings And A Funeral, the wise old bird Zazu in Disney's The Lion King to the jewelry store employee Rufus in Love Actually, Atkinson's performances can be understated and subtle instead of the rubber-faced lunacy of Bean. I would also recommend the under-rated black comedy Keeping Mum where Atkinson's vicar is oblivious to the adultery and murderous shenanigans going on around him.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox