He’s back! And it’s about time! Or is it? Created for a series of Barclaycard TV ads back in the late 1990s, Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling, fumbling MI7 secret agent Johnny English made his feature film debut in 2002 and, whilst the film was a significant Box office hit in the UK and across Europe, it’s hard to imagine that too many people were clamouring for a return engagement with this least super of super-spies. Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Atkinson, not the most prolific of comedy actors, was resurrecting the character for a much-belated sequel and it’s probably fair to say that not only weren't expectations particularly high, they were probably never really got far off the ground.
‘Johnny English’, which I revisited prior to tackling the sequel, never seemed to find the right tone, its Bond parodies too broad, its plot farcical and its protagonist (John Malkovich horribly overplaying his role as Pascal Sauvage, French fashion guru turned would-be monarch) just too silly. Atkinson’s English was too consistently incompetent and a descent (literally) into lavatory humour made the last half-hour or so a bit of a chore. But everyone deserves a second chance and what a pleasure (and a surprise) to report that ‘Johnny English Reborn’ is a leaner, slicker, altogether more spectacular affair, trotting the globe in the best traditions of the classic Bonds and borrowing clichés and even situations from 007 without ever attempting to poke fun at them. This is very much an affectionate homage, reminding us of the days when Bond films were both thrilling and fun and a far cry from the two most recent dour and heavy-going entries in the 007 franchise. ‘Johnny English Reborn’ is an action-packed adventure thriller and it’s also very, very funny. Who knew?
Johnny English is on a Tibetan retreat after another royally cocked-up assignment. Drafted back into MI7 by its new boss Pegasus (Gillian Anderson looking mighty fine) English finds himself tasked with tracking down the cabal of assassins determined to kill the Chinese president as he embarks on a series of peace-keeping talks with the British Prime Minister (Stephen Campbell Moore). Against all odds English finds two of the conspirators (more by luck than judgment) and eventually discovers that the third is rather closer to home than anyone expected.
It’d be asking too much of even the most wide-eyed audience to expect it to believe that an agent as relentlessly incompetent as English was in the first movie could ever conceivably be kept in active service so the script goes to some pains to depict English as a bit more worldly-wise this time around, a bit cooler in crisis and a lot more confident around the ladies. But he still gets it wrong in spectacular style (his ongoing mistaken identity struggles with Pik Sen Lim’s gun-toting assassin are a hoot and a half) and the movie is packed with clever verbal and physical sequences which remind us what a huge comic talent Atkinson is and what a shame it is we don’t get to see more of him these days. Surely it’s only Atkinson who can still raise a smile with a line like “Let’s kick some bottom.” Amidst all the spectacle and the elaborate set pieces, Atkinson gets his best laughs with a simple sequence where he’s in a meeting with the PM and his MI7 bosses and he can’t control the height of his chair and later when he physically reacts to a mind control drug he’s inadvertently consumed.
‘Johnny English Reborn’ is a bigger, faster film than its predecessor in every way. A chase scene around Hong Kong (where English cooly outwits his free-running adversary before indulging in a bit of clumsy dockside kung fu) is followed by an ingenious fast-speed wheelchair race around London (don’t ask, just don’t) and the film’s climax has its tongue right through ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s cheek with its confrontation in a mountaintop fortress and a final struggle aboard a cable-car. The film’s also struck gold with its supporting cast. Dominic West is clearly having fun as the urbane ‘Agent One’ Simon Ambrose, Rosamund Pike is a far more convincing potential love interest for English than Natalie Imbruglia in the first film and even ‘Torchwood’s Burn Gorman is along for the ride as a sinister bad guy. Early disappointment at the non-appearance of English’s former assistant Bough (Ben Miller) is quickly assuaged by Daniel Kaluuya (currently appearing in ‘The Fades’ on BBC3) who is hugely impressive as his new young sidekick Tucker.
Maybe ‘Johnny English Reborn’ caught me with my guard down or, far more likely, it’s actually a much better film that I might have expected - and it’s certainly a far better film than some of the sniffier critics have suggested. This year’s comedy movies have travelled further than ever down the gross-out route, from ‘Horrible Bosses’, ‘Bad Teacher’ and the UK’s massively successful ‘Inbetweeners.’ But ‘Johnny English Reborn’ is simple, relatively-unsophisticated old school British slapstick; there’s no swearing, no nudity, nothing at all to frighten the horses. It’s a refreshing knockabout comedy and a family film in just about its purest modern form. It may have taken Johnny English the better part of a decade to make his way back to the big screen but, on this form, I’d be happy to see him back up there for a third romping adventure. Just don’t leave it so long next time, Rowan.
Expected rating: 5 out of 10
'Johnny English Reborn' is in UK cinemas now