DVD Johnny English Reborn
Rowan Atkinson is a comic performer whose physicality often rules language irrelevant: his Mr Bean has been a huge global hit thanks largely to its absence of words. But Atkinson’s greatest roles have been very wordy indeed – not least in the form of the acerbic Edmund Blackadder. Johnny English is a character who falls somewhere between the two extremes, and having already proved successful in his first screen outing, could the bumbling secret agent about to add his name to Atkinson’s roster of legendary screen creations?
Reprising a role originally made famous in a series of Barclaycard commercials, Atkinson is the notoriously incompetent agent Johnny English. For five years, English has been living and training in a mountaintop Tibetan monastery following a career-ending botched job in Mozambique. But spy chief Pegasus (Gillian Anderson) brings him in from the cold for a special mission: taking down an international conspiracy to assassinate the Chinese premier.
Along the way he’s assisted by CIA man Titus Fisher (Richard Schiff), British spy Simon Ambrose (Dominic West) and glamorous special agent Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike) in a series of set-pieces and double-crosses. Will English bumble his way to resolving the case or will he end up back in exile?
There’s no denying that Johnny English boasts an impressive cast. Given the lightweight nature of the script, it’s surprising to see ‘serious’ thespians like West and Anderson lending their talents to proceedings. Perhaps they felt it would be an easy payday? They were right, although the demands were never going to be too taxing given that director Oliver Parker’s recent efforts have included both instalments of the St Trinian’s movies.
In terms of plot and structure, Johnny English Reborn is a straightforward Bond rip off.
In terms of plot and structure, Johnny English Reborn is a straightforward Bond rip off. The problem with spoofing the Bond films, however, is that they themselves are already knowingly camp and self-aware. Whilst Anderson is a lightweight version of ‘M’, ‘Q’ is portrayed by a wheelchair-bound Tim McInerney. In a scene reminiscent of any number of Bond movies, he talks English through a series of absurd technological gadgets and gizmos as the dozy secret agent accidentally causes carnage in the design room. It’s not in the least bit funny – largely because it’s been seen so many times before. Being this derivative is fine in comedy – as long as you add some laughs to the source material.
What follows is a paper-thin plot linking any number of action/comedy set pieces. It’s slapdash, at best, and criminally unfunny. The opening action sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film: English pursues an athletic free-running opponent across a series of rooftops in Macau – outwitting him through thought rather than action. The idea has potential (much like Indiana Jones shooting the sword wielding adversary in Temple of Doom), but it’s so half-hearted that it falls down on every level. As the villain climbs, leaps and clambers across obstacles, English sucks his breath in to squeeze through gaps and opens gates his opponent has jumped over. It might have worked but the pace is too pedestrian and plodding.
There are some gags that do work. A murderous cleaner whose job is to ‘clean up’ loose ends pops up repeatedly to good effect – usually resulting in an innocent elderly lady being assaulted in her stead. This recurring character occasionally raises a genuine laugh – not least in a sequence at Pegasus’ home involving numerous mistaken identities, knife-throwing and a violently vengeful mother. And when these jokes fall flat, it’s rarely more than a few minutes until someone else gets whacked in the testicles – always hilarious.
Perhaps it’s churlish to criticise Johnny English Reborn. The film was clearly not designed for a cine-literate audience but for children. Or was it? Whilst the humour is likely only to appeal to youngsters, the plot is a little too long-winded and convoluted for younger audiences, and the central character is not charming enough for them to root for. As a result, Johnny English falls between two stools and fails to really engage anyone. If the filmmakers had been a little bit smarter, they’d have played up the similarities to Mr Bean and created something akin to Austin Powers for kids instead.
There’s a tendency nowadays to assume that children’s films must also appeal to adult audiences – this is simply not the case. Although Pixar have successfully straddled this boundary, many others have failed. Johnny English Reborn is yet another botched attempt. It’s an oddly charmless film which fails to make the most of its greatest asset, Rowan Atkinson, and isn’t brave enough to pick a specific audience and play to it.
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