After finding considerable success in the 1980s with Blackadder and the 1990s with Mr Bean, comedian Rowan Atkinson’s expanded repertoire grew in the new millennium with a number of film roles. One of these was Johnny English, a send-up of spy films that received mixed reviews but did well commercially and kick-started a mini franchise for production company Studiocanal, with two sequels seeing the light of day in the following 15 years.
In a way, Atkinson brought elements of both the Blackadder and the Mr Bean characters to Johnny English. The former’s cocky, know-it-all air, not to mention his constant admonishing of his attendant lackey, is coupled with the latter’s bumbling naivety to create a self-assured but decidedly incompetent character.
After his fellow MI7 agents are all killed in an explosion he himself caused, it falls upon English to prevent prison owner Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich doing a scandalous French accent) from stealing the Crown Jewels and crowning himself king. (There’s a suitably convoluted and implausible plot revolving around the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Mission: Impossible-style facemask and blackmailing the Queen.) You can imagine Malkovich enjoying the chance to go broad – very broad – with his performance.
The Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia, best known in the acting world at this point for her role in Neighbours, plays Interpol agent Lorna Campbell. Retaining her native accent for the role, Imbruglia falls into the romantic interest archetype of many a spy film, which the film partly subverts by having her prove herself to be more competent than English, although that’s admittedly not hard – partly because, for all of her wit and skills on a motorcycle, English still gets her in the end.
As English’s partner Angus Bough, Ben Miller plays the straight man to Atkinson’s clown and brings an almost boyish innocence which is rather charming. Filling out the cast list is a line-up of British talent – think Tim Pigott-Smith, Kevin McNally, Oliver Ford Davies – that adds verisimilitude to what would otherwise appear a low-budget imitation of the genre.
For the film is one of those comedy-action outings that attempts to have it both ways. It reaches high with tropes including a car chase, shoot-outs and a rousing soundtrack. Indeed stalwart James Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade contributed to the screenplay. But we probably spend a little too long in the middle of an action sequence before getting to the pay-off joke.
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Classic and genuinely funny sight gags – such as the dart-projecting pen, English throwing his coat out the window instead of onto the coat stand, and his ongoing inability to arm a pistol effectively – stand alongside more awkward moments, particularly in the second half, where there’s a lot skulking about corridors that slows down the pace and the laughs. Through it all however, Atkinson keeps the ship steady with his naturally humorous onscreen presence.
A lightweight but enjoyable outing, Johnny English is best embraced as a bit of farcical fun, a silly spook spoof that showcases Atkinson’s knack for physical comedy and ability to evoke a laugh with something as simple as a stray eyebrow.
Johnny English was released on 18th July 2003.