Johnny English, a spoof of James Bond and other secret agent films, first began life as a series of UK advertisements for Barclaycard before growing into a generally lackluster 2003 feature film. The concept is nothing special, but the star of the show has drawing power: Blackadder’s Rowan Atkinson, familiar to many as Mr. Bean; that character’s (mostly) dialogue-free conception has led to global exposure.
I don’t think anyone was clamoring for a sequel to Johnny English, but with modest financial success and a lack of creativity in the world of mainstream cinema, here we are eight years later with Johnny English Reborn, directed by Oliver Parker (Othello). Reborn, indeed.
Credit where credit is due: this movie is a clear notch above its predecessor, with more laughs, better stunts, and a slightly greater sense of sophistication.
It’s five years after Johnny English (Atkinson) blew a major operation in Mozambique; at the start of the film, he’s seen in exile studying martial arts under Tibetan monks in sequences that parody The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But an ex-CIA agent ready to spill the beans about criminal plans will only talk to English, so MI7 head Pegasus (Gillian Anderson) recalls the agent and sends him off to Macau.
What follows is a familiar spy movie parody, with Atkinson’s English more Inspector Clouseau than James Bond. At least he’s not a complete idiot here; the time in Tibet apparently did him well. In the film’s best sequence, English manages to track down a fast-moving parkour expert across the rooftops of Macau while maintaining nothing more than casual strolling speed.
There’s little connection between Reborn and the first film: there are no returning characters besides English, and even he seems to be a slightly different (less bumbling) presence (this is explained, I guess, by his training with the monks). That’s mostly a good thing, although Johnny’s sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) was the best thing about the previous film, and has been replaced here by the more conventional Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya).
There’s also (thankfully) a lot less toilet humor this time around, and while the gags don’t exactly come fast and furious, there is a higher hit-to-miss ratio. I particularly liked the corporatization of MI7, and a scene where Johnny can’t seem to work out his adjustable chair.
Best of all is Atkinson, who, well into his 50s, is still one of our great physical comedians. He does his best to get the most out of this utterly conventional material.
The supporting cast is also (mostly) an improvement over the previous entry, with Rosamund Pike as a potential love interest (and MI7 psychologist) and Dominic West (The Wire) as fellow MI7 agent Simon Ambrose. And it’s always fun to see Anderson.
Stick around during the credits for an additional scene that continues a running gag from the first film.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in Bond parodies, be sure to check out this groovy Czech one: Václav Vorlíček’s 1967 Konec Agenta W4C (The End of Agent W4C), available on local DVD with English subtitles.