Johnny English Strikes Again

2019-05-31 08:30
Rowan Atkinson in a scene from the movie, Johnny E


After a cyber-attack on British Intelligence leaks the names of all operative agents, MI7 are forced to call back into the field one agent they really hoped to have seen the last of: Johnny English. Now, with his trusty sidekick, Boff, at his side and a beautiful Russian spy on his tail, English is all that stands between order and technological Armageddon. Heaven help us all.


You would think that by the third entry in this underwhelming spy-comedy series, I would have learned to temper my expectation that a Johnny English film would ever be anything more than a moderately amusing but instantly forgettable footnote in the career of one of the UK’s greatest comedic talents.

Predictably enough, Johnny English Strikes Again is about as underwhelming as you might expect – but it really shouldn’t be. Not only does it feature Emma Thompson as a particularly slimy and stupid British Prime Minister but this welcome throwback to classic spoof films like Young Frankenstein, Hot Shots and, most notably, the Naked Gun series is the sort of project that should really make the best of Rowan Atkinson’s particular skills as a comedian.

Atkinson is a comedic performer who is as at home delivering witheringly caustic one-liners as he is at throwing himself into the broadest slapstick imaginable and who can switch between sophisticated upper-class toff and barely functional idiot like no one else.

Generations of kids may know him best as Mr Bean but it’s his work on the scathingly funny Blackadder and his sublime live act (seriously, if you haven’t checked out his “how to date” sketch on YouTube, do so now – it’s the funniest thing you will see all year) that has long convinced me that he is a versatile comedic genius with very, very few equals. 

Johnny English should be to Atkinson what Frank Drebin was to Leslie Nielsen: an almost perfect approximation of the sort of archetype he’s spoofing but just stupid and exaggerated enough to be broadly comedic. Atkinson doesn’t quite have Nielsen’s way with deadpan delivery but it’s impossible to think of anyone who can straddle the line between suave super-spy and hapless buffoon better than Rowan Atkinson. This, indeed, is precisely why the Johnny English films are so disappointing: this mix of character and performer should be a wellspring of belly-laughs but has somehow never really added up to much more than a few titters or, at its very best, a giggle or two. 

The problem, unfortunately, is that William Davies, the writer of all three Johnny English films, never lives up to his leading man. To his credit, unlike so many of today’s shabby, bloated and overly improvised comedies, Davies does at least try his best to put together a comedy script that is tight, pacey and featuring actual, crafted jokes, of both the physical and verbal varieties. He’s also a veteran comedy writer, responsible for very fine films like How to Train Your Dragon (the far superior first film, at that) and the criminally overlooked, Flushed Away. Unfortunately, like its two predecessors, the gags in Johnny English Strikes Again feel almost too polite, too guarded to ever fully land – a fact that is further exacerbated by established comedy-director David Kerr’s surprisingly limp comedic timing. 

The problem, interestingly, may just be that Johnny English aims its sights at too young an audience. The great spoof films were never really aimed at too old an audience – they were PG 13 at most and their sexual gags consisted either of innuendo that young kids wouldn’t pick up on or were so over-the-top (fully-body condoms anyone?) that they played out like just another loony physical gag – but they had an edge to them that didn’t just give them bite but gave them a manic, psychotic energy that is just entirely lacking in the far-too-safe Johnny English films.

Kids will undoubtedly like Johnny English Strikes Again far more than their parents (who probably won’t mind its affable silliness too much anyway) but it’s unlikely that they will ever like it as much as Mr Bean, which features a certain comedic purity that is easy to under-rate. The biggest problem, though, isn’t that the film features the sort of juvenile humour that appeals to kids of all ages, but that it never allows itself to fully go for it – presumably out of a mix of guarded political correctness and an apparent unwillingness to offend the delicate sensibilities of our precious children. 

Frankly – and, yes, this is cranky old man time – there’s just something sad that while kids of my generation had our comedic tastes shaped by relatively edgy but not-too-age-inappropriate classics like Airplane, the Jerk or Spaceballs, today’s kids get, at best, neutered and utterly inoffensive fair like Johnny English. Sure, they were spared the truly ghastly spoof films of the last decade (Disaster Movie! Epic Movie! I’d-Rather-Slam-My-Head-Against-A-Brick-Wall-Then-Watch-This-Movie Movie!) by being too young for them but even if Johnny English 3 is an entirely innocuous and not unenjoyable light comedy, the fact that there’s something much funnier, edgier and nuttier lying underneath its far too well-behaved surface makes it something of a frustrating experience for us dyed-in-the-wool comedy fans.  

And, yes, I did basically review the entire series rather than this particular instalment but, honestly, they’re so interchangeable that what applies to one, applies just as much to the others. Brownie points for consistency, at least.  

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