By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Johnny English returns in Johnny English Reborn.
As for the two-flick franchise, if it’s not quite reborn in triumph, well, it’s close.
Rowan Atkinson brings his amusing Johnny English character to the slapstick party in Johnny English Reborn, the spoof sequel to 2003’s Johnny English, a fairly funny comedy that introduced Atkinson’s bumbling British secret agent, a James Bondian Johnny trying to give Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, Mike Myers’ Austin Powers, and Leslie Nielsen’s naked gunman, Frank Drebin, a run for their collective money.
That he does, and more, in a sequel that’s more than equal to its predecessor.
The title character has developed into a parodic and child-friendly movie icon after beginning life in a series of British TV commercials as a credit-card pitchman. So let’s give him some credit.
Atkinson, a Brit familiar to American movie audiences from the Bean flicks and his memorable turn as a nervous minister in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a superb physical comedian. And his improbable secret agent, an intelligence officer (to use the term loosely) in Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not just Bean-there-done-that familiar, but looks and feels surprisingly fresh.
And fitfully hysterical.
This time Johnny English will have to be spiritually reborn because he is emotionally scarred after being sacked for botching an important assignment in Mozambique. That’s why he’s been in seclusion for the last eight years at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
What he finds out is that he’s been beckoned by MI-7 (that’s the Johnny English Secret Service, as opposed to the real-life English Secret Service) for a globetrotting mission.
Why him? Because of a demand by an operative to speak only to him.
His assignment: to stop a secret group of international assassins, known as Vortex, before they eliminate the Chinese premier world leader and throw the world into chaos.
So he flies back to London, where the Chinese premier is scheduled to be on a state visit.
But not only has the espionage game changed considerably during English’s absence, he must also navigate his way through a conspiracy that could involve not only MI-7, but the CIA and KGB as well.
Gillian Anderson plays his boss, Pegasus; Dominic West the top MI-7 agent; Rosamund Pike provides English’s English love interest as Kate, a behavioral psychologist; and Richard Schiff is his CIA contact.
Director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband, Othello, The Importance of Being Earnest) has done comedy before, but nothing this broad. All things considered, he acquits himself quite well, having extensive fun with spy-flick conventions and collaborating splendidly with his remarkable leading man.
English’s blithe confidence bordering on arrogance, his obliviousness in the face of humiliation, and his with-age-comes-wisdom sight gags, in combination with the film’s elegant look and style, are delightfully daft and often roaringly funny.
And the character, no matter how foolish he can seem, is not the pushover that the premise might suggest.
When the slapstick absurdities are anchored in reality, which they often are, and the sight gags mounted with restraint and care, which they also are, the farcical film really percolates. And the screenplay by Hamish McColl from a story by William Davies, a clothesline on which to hang bits of boisterous business, is just interesting and clever enough to allow us to enjoy Atkinson strutting his comedic stuff.
Ultimately it’s Rowan, the guy rowin’ the boat, who makes or breaks this movie. Atkinson, living permanently in goofball mode with his over-articulation and deadpan delivery, gets lots of hearty laughs, mostly because of the material, occasionally in spite of it.
But it’s a hoot-and-a-half watching him do his thing to revive the lost art of slapstick with a gift for physical comedy that’s unique, admirable, and highly entertaining.
Oh, and stick around for a bonus physical-comedy surprise from Atkinson at the end of the final credits.
So we’ll cash in a Bond worth 3 stars out of 4 for the laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy sequel, Johnny English Reborn, as Rowan Atkinson demonstrates once again that it’s a bungle out there.