As Rowan Atkinson returns this week for a third Johnny English film that no-one really asked for, it seems inevitable that this unlikely franchise (based around a character created for a ’90s Barclaycard ad campaign) will suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Critics won’t be expecting much from Johnny English Strikes Again, 15 years after the original and seven on from its sequel Reborn, but Atkinson is uncommonly gifted at delivering the series’ shameless brand of posturing idiocy and bumbling slapstick.
In fact, the 63 year-old is one of the few perfectly pitched comedic actors who could pull off the often painfully obvious gags with such timing and alacrity that you, the viewer, will laugh despite yourself. Can you really imagine anyone else in the role? It’s his genius that makes the 2003 big screen debut of MI7’s most inept secret agent such a guilty pleasure. Now pay attention…
One of Johnny’s early scenes perfectly sets up his disastrous personal mix of being arrogant yet accident-prone. After striding confidently into his superior Pegasus’ office and aiming a flirty line at his Moneypenny-esque secretary, English attempts to throw his jacket onto the stand in the vein of James Bond’s famous hat toss. Instead, it sails through an open window, to the sound of screeching brakes below. Atkinson’s muted reaction just captures his character’s embarrassment along with his constant desire not to be thought a buffoon.
However, things only get worse when he grabs a pen which reminds him of “the old service-issue ballpoint”, clicks it twice like you used to with that old gadget and… the secretary passes out on the floor. English’s little shuffle to block her unconscious body from view of Pegasus, eyes fixed all the while on his boss, is another small piece of physicality that you can’t help but chuckle at.
Later, Johnny and his loyal yet clearly more competent assistant Bough (Ben Miller) set off in pursuit of two henchmen of the villainous Pascal Sauvage (a wonderfully hammy John Malkovich). Upon finding their illegally parked Aston Martin being towed, the duo are forced to give chase in the tow truck before English climbs into the DB7 while it’s still clamped on the back. Taking what could’ve been a rather on-the-nose Bond pastiche – a car chase in 007’s vehicle of choice – the sequence takes the ridiculous setup and turns it into something inventive and funny.
Bough, taking the truck’s wheel, swings the Aston out on its cradle in an effort to get it back on the road. It doesn’t go to plan, but does give English the chance to fire a missile at a speed camera which snaps his picture – a satisfying moment that many a London driver would dearly love to recreate. The scene also shows English at his most courageous and heroic, even pulling off a handbrake spin that he congratulates himself on with a smug smirk for the ages.
Of course, Johnny’s good form can’t last for too long. After losing their quarry, a hearse carrying the stolen crown jewels, they accidentally track another to a cemetery. You know what’s coming. Except, not quite – our calamitous spy taking his mistake to a whole other level as he crashes a funeral. That arrogant streak returns to haunt him as he insists on making a grand performance of his unwavering certainty that the criminals’ game is up, sarcastically praising the genuine, bewildered mourners for what he assumes to be a sophisticated charade to bury the jewels.
We, the audience, know his error from the outset and it becomes a proper cringe-fest as Atkinson pushes the envelope (dancing on a man’s coffin is pretty dark). Bough, again, comes to the rescue with a cover story claiming Johnny is an escaped lunatic. While somewhat distasteful a decade and a half on, the situation’s ridiculousness does at least give Atkinson the opportunity to employ his patented delivery of nonsense words (see also: Blackadder’s attempt at faking insanity with the repeated use of “wibble”).
What’s a spy without his gadgets? Johnny has two rings, each with a hidden spike. When jabbed into a bad guy’s skin, one injects them with a truth serum; the other contains a muscle relaxant to subdue them. As long as he doesn’t mix them up. Ohhh, would you believe it?! Johnny’s only gone and dosed the henchman he wants to question with the wrong ring. That’s OK though, because Johnny is still on the case, as long as he doesn’t accidentally prick himself with the… Ohhh no.
Sure, it’s a forehead-smackingly silly joke but once again it’s all about how Atkinson sells it. As his legs start to give out, English tells Bough to “take charge” – only his speech is now giving out to the drug too. Again, the broad comedy here is stretched out to the point of absurdity, but that’s the idea. When the gags are this obvious, it’s all about how they’re executed – and when Atkinson is in full flow, it’s best to let him crack on. The pinnacle here is his many attempts to splutter out the word “charge”, resulting in the similarly rubber-limbed henchman understanding him and trying to help Bough out too – a brilliant little touch.
The climax of Johnny English sees our hero trying to prevent Malkovich’s Sauvage getting himself crowned King. With the coronation underway, Johnny’s final throw of the dice is to show a DVD he swiped earlier outlining Sauvage’s evil scheme. Only, again, we know that’s not what will appear on the big screen because we saw him mistakenly swap the discs earlier. Another scene, another predictable outcome. Once more though, the joy is in only partly knowing what’s next. Just what is on this DVD?
In one of the greatest laugh-out-loud moments of the movie, it’s Johnny being secretly filmed in his bathroom playing his toothbrush like a guitar and lip-syncing to Abba’s ‘Does Your Mother Know’. It’s joyously ludicrous and Atkinson’s stunned face is a winner in itself. But the pièce de résistance is again a small, throwaway moment where English – aghast at this public humiliation – still absently-minded mouths along the lyrics.
Of course, Johnny goes on to save the day and returns to do the same (with the help of a pre-superstardom Daniel Kaluuya) in 2011’s Johnny English Reborn. The film could never be called a comedy classic and its Rotten Tomatoes score may not convince anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a punt, but if you suspend your disbelief and give your (British) intelligence a rest, Atkinson’s endearing spy schtick is worth a go.