Atkinson's comedy instincts as inept spy 'Johnny English' provide reliable laughs in otherwise uneven spoof
Americans have made the "Austin Powers" movies their James Bond spoof of choice, but in "Johnny English" the British strike back with native dry-wit buffoon Rowan Atkinson starring as a bumblingly inept secret agent called up from desk duty when his own ineffectual security gets all the country's top spies killed by a single bomb.
Atkinson's career as a side-splitter pinnacled in the 1980s with a brilliantly acid-tongued historical comedy on the BBC called "Black Adder" (which can still be seen on many rogue PBS stations). He's probably best known this side of the pond for his obnoxious "Mr. Bean" TV series or as the nervous rookie minister in "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
In "Johnny English" he plays a third-tier intelligence operative with delusions of grandeur and an amusingly paper-thin facade of poise, which along with the over-pronounced features of his rubbery face is just funny enough to sustain the snickers between out-loud laughs in this hit-and-miss comedy.
Picking up where the dead super-spies left off, English is assigned to protect the crown jewels during an exhibition -- and they're immediately stolen right from under his circus-tent nose. Chasing down the thieves in a tow truck that was hauling away his illegally parked Aston Martin, he stumbles onto a larger conspiracy to overthrow the Queen. It seems an uppity French aristocrat and distant royal relative named Pascal Sauvage (an enjoyably hammy John Malkovich) is peeved that his family was passed over for the British throne several centuries ago, and he's bent on becoming an usurper.
His convoluted plan involving prison building and fake archbishops is such a mess of gaping plot holes that it's clear co-writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade (both of whom are Bond flick veterans) and William Davies (of the awful "Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot!") didn't bother thinking much about anything beyond laughs. And even so, many of the movie's gags are telegraphed to such a ridiculous degree that you can see some of them coming literally an hour away.
Yet when the punchlines arrive, Atkinson sells them with aplomb. Making an ass of himself by making foolish assumptions is Johnny English's primary personality trait. He pontificates about the difficultly of assessing how the crown jewels were swiped, not realizing he's standing right in front of a gaping hole in the floor. He parachutes onto the wrong twin skyscraper -- one's Sauvage's headquarters, the other is a hospital -- and holds doctors at gunpoint. These are anything but droll moments on paper, but Atkinson's bluster of misplaced confidence can make them seem hysterical.
Director Peter Howitt ("Sliding Doors") gets a lot of mileage out of each joke without riding any of them to exhaustion like some aforementioned spy satires do -- and some of the movie's best lines are just throwaways, as when one of Sauvage's henchmen in his high-security skyscraper is pricked with a truth serum needle and offers up an escape route out of the building as if he's giving friendly directions to a lost tourist.
Other strokes of stupidity and ham-handed writing are harder to forgive. Sauvage records a DVD detailing his evil plan with maniacal glee for no reason other than having English stumble upon it, then mix it up with a surveillance video of our hero mugging in front of his bathroom mirror. Because formula dictates there has to be a love interest, English is teamed with an out-of-his league Interpol agent -- played by doe-eyed, pouty-lipped, perfect-skinned pop chanteuse Natalie Imbruglia -- who is a dead-sexy knockout in a backless evening dress but otherwise largely superfluous.
What's worse is that the plot falls apart in its climax, which depends not on Johnny English's unsuspected smarts, or even his dumb luck, but on calm, calculating Sauvage blowing his top in "You can't handle the truth!" style and conveniently revealing his megalomania to the entire world live on TV.
Yet thanks to the precision clowning of Atkinson and what is, until that last scene, the wittily nonchalant arrogance of Malkovich (who relishes in the cartooniest French accent in movie history), "Johnny English" earns enough raucous laughter to send audiences home wanting to describe scenes to their friends.