According to its press notes, the idea for Johnny English grew from a series of one-minute commercials star Rowan Atkinson did for British television. Makes sense: The film has about a minute's worth of comedy, repeated 87 times.
Resolutely one-note, Johnny English is a spy spoof that plays endless riffs on a single idea, that the movie's spy is utterly clueless. He has no idea how to spy, he has no idea how to treat a lady, he has no idea how to work as part of a team, he has no idea what is going on behind him -- or even right in front of his face, for that matter. He's as dim a bulb as there's ever been, and isn't it fun watching him try to make like James Bond?
Well, it is, for a while. But soon the joke grows stale, the act old, one's patience thin.
Atkinson, a major star in England on the strength of his TV hit Bean, plays a low-level pencil-pusher in the British Secret Service, a Walter Mitty-like daydreamer who thinks he's Bond, but is really more of a bumble. But, when the entire roster of British spies winds up obliterated, English is the only man left when it comes time to protect the crown jewels during a major exhibition.
Things go wrong, naturally, and soon English finds himself in the middle of some major chicanery, involving the jewels, a lovely woman (singer Natalie Imbruglia) of indeterminate loyalties, and Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), a rich Frenchman with an unnerving interest in all things British.
One question arises immediately from all this: Do we really need another spy spoof? Between Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau and Mike Myers' Austin Powers, pretty much everything that needs to be spoofed in spy pictures has gotten what it deserves. And besides being superior comic actors, both Sellers and Myers knew enough to surround their characters with an actual movie, where the humor grows as the story progresses, ending in some inspired crescendo, a peak of lunacy that couldn't help but elicit laughter from audiences whose humor pumps already had been primed.
Better filmmakers would have surrounded Atkinson with a stellar supporting cast, but director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies believe having him up there on the screen is enough.
With his outsized French accent, Malkovich is a welcome presence, especially when he's reacting to Atkinson, and Ben Miller as Bough, English's overly competent apprentice, is always good for a laugh. But neither is given enough to do.
Johnny English never builds any momentum, and Atkinson simply isn't a good enough actor to mine continued laughs from repetitive material. The first time English tries to act all-knowing in the face of disaster, it's funny. And there are plenty of titters scattered throughout. But all English does is act dim -- a one-trick schtick that can't carry an entire film.
Starring Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, John Malkovich
Directed by Peter Howitt
Rated PG (comic nudity, some crude humor and language)
Released by Universal
Time 87 minutes
Sun Score **