(Oliver Parker, 2011, USA/UK)
The sequel no one wanted to an original that, now eight years old, hasn’t exactly aged well in the collective minds of its detractors, Johnny English Reborn sees Rowan Atkinson dragged back to the fold to play the titular spy, prone to pratfalls and lapses in mental balance, who limps from each bungling, supposedly humorous set piece existing merely to play to Atkinson’s physical adeptness. Like the Austin Powers trilogy before it, the Johnny English films’ strengths lay in toying with the conventions of the James Bond franchise, sending up its interchangeable usage of female characters, the joys of outlandish gadgetry (here we have a voice-controlled car, vocally feminising pastels and an apparently bulletproof umbrella), and the perils of intercontinental espionage, but when it comes to narrative structure and balancing humour with action, they struggle to find a happy medium.
Johnny English Reborn is stuffed with the type of broad comedy that attempts to cater to all levels of age and intellect, though its ultimate interest is to squeeze as much slapstick mishaps out of Atkinson, who looks blank for the most of it, as possible; there is a multitude of testicle-kickings, mistaken identity foibles and rubbery sight gags, which leaves little room for the occasional subtlety of English’s dunderhead, like his lax approach at chasing an enemy, which raises laughs before culminating in yet another blow to the balls. Like it’s comedy, the film lets itself down by giving in to debased, lowest common denominator banality all too often.
While it is no surprise that publicity-shy Atkinson has returned to this feeble series; he did the followup to his most applauded character, Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007), which did nothing but tarnish the wobbly success of its original, Reborn actually has a rich supporting cast playing second fiddle and playing it completely straight. From Gillian Anderson to Richard Schiff, Rosamund Pike to Dominic West, Johnny English Reborn has the correct formula but exchanges it in favour of unfortunately crowd-pleasing childishness (the screening I was in was uproarious), a possible hint that we may not have another eight year gap between this and the inevitably tired third installment.