When a cyber attack leaks the identities of the entire British network of spies, the secret service need to find an agent without their cover compromised, leading them to the long retired Johnny English. How will the re-hired agent fare in his search for the source of the hack, in a profession that has moved on from his methods?
No one can accuse the makers of the Johnny English series of rushing out installments. This third entry is seven years on from Johnny English Reborn; itself eight years on from the 2003 debut entry. Any belief that a return after such a hiatus is driven by the hatching of a strong new idea or direction for the series will be disappointed. Johnny English Strikes Again is very much in-keeping with its predecessors in tone. As for quality…
When the film begins, Johnny (Rowan Atkinson), is working in Surrey as a Geography Teacher at a well-to-do private school; though the subject he teaches is learned from dialogue much later in the film, as he is seen teaching largely espionage techniques to his secondary-age class. Clearly he is missing his former life in the field.
When called back into the service, it is clear that the film will be mining the concept of an analogue man in a digital age. Johnny refuses his MI7-issued smartphone, insists on driving a late-70s era Aston Martin over the hybrid choices offered; and demands the return of Bough (Ben Miller) as his assistant. It was interesting to note the absence this time of long-term Bond series writers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, as this is, essentially, the same premise as Skyfall: from the leaking of agent identities, to the calling into action of a man slightly beyond his era.
As Johnny returns to the field to investigate the possible involvement in the leaks, and ongoing, related-attacks, of young, Silicon Valley billionaire Jason Volta (Jeff Lacy), and the mysterious Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko), the film returns decidedly to the formula now seen three times; with the added wrinkle of Johnny now being in his 60s, rather than 40s. Johnny continually makes a mess of each part of the mission, lucks into a positive result each time, then claims that whatever happened was part of the plan all along. Though there are some decent gags to be found in the basic premise: a lack of email necessitating reams of faxes needing to be sent to his location being an early example.
Director David Kerr and writer William Davies have fashioned a film that moves along at a decent pace; with the running time barely exceeding 80 minutes before end credits are taken into account. The film, however, has little new to offer. Every joke is telegraphed to an extent that is, in itself, almost comedic. The moment the viewer catches sight of any one of Johnny’s arsenal of gadgets, the punchline for their use will be immediately obvious to anyone who has ever seen any comedy whatsoever. Enjoyment of this film will depend very heavily on tolerance of this fore-signalling. It isn’t hard to imagine fans of Carry On-type humour getting a lot of out this. Aside from Bond and the Carry On series, viewers may note an homage to The Naked Gun in a learner driver sequence, featuring Father Ted‘s Pauline McLynn, clearly evoking a similar sequence in the 1988 Leslie Nielsen classic.
Johnny English Strikes Again can boast a terrific cast, all on excellent form; Emma Thompson as an embattled, hard drinking Prime Minister, and fun cameos from Charles Dance, Michael Gambon and Edward Fox. Ultimately, though, the viewer’s interest will likely correlate directly to enjoyment of the first two entries in the series. A fun-enough diversion, the film does at least have two, back-to-back, genuinely laugh out loud sequences based first around mistaken use of medication, and then a superb AI sequence calling fully on Atkinson’s gifts for physical comedy. Those two sequences alone should ensure no-one feels overly short-changed.
Johnny English Strikes Again is now on general release in UK cinemas.