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Volume 5, Number 29

This Week's Reviews:  Johnny English.

This Week's Omissions:  Bad Boys II, How to Deal.

Peter Howitt

Rowan Atkinson
Natalie Imbruglia
John Malkovich
Ben Miller
Douglas McFerran
Tim Pigott-Smith
Kevin McNally

Release: 18 Jul. 03

Johnny English


In the past couple years, Rowan Atkinson has been without a television series. The comedian, best known for his BBC shows Black Adder, Mr. Bean, and The Thin Blue Line, has instead made the occasional film (Rat Race, Scooby-Doo) and commercial appearance. One of those commercial series was for the Barclaycard, in which he appeared as a bumbling secret agent spoofing James Bond. Evidently someone at Universal Studios saw this as the most likely way to turn Atkinson’s shtick into a film vehicle that could sell around the world.

And so we have Johnny English, another spy spoof in what has to be the most overused subgenre within the parody family. This isn’t to say that the film is a complete waste -- in fact, it does have its occasional share of laughs -- but that it starts off with a bit of arrested potential, needlessly walking into a parade of jokes that have already been used in everything from Get Smart to Spy Hard. Austin Powers has become a series out of its first film, which took some of the stale Bond satire and made it humorous, and, in the process, became an entirely new animal, a pop culture barometer more than a spy spoof.

Johnny English doesn’t really add much to the world of spy spoofs, but, with its airy ease and occasional laughs, it at least offers something to recognize its existence. There are some dull moments, but thankfully Atkinson is present to ensure that even lapses in screenwriting judgment can be saved by a comedian with impeccable timing.

Following a surprisingly entertaining theme song by Robbie Williams (himself even more of a British icon than Atkinson), the film walks into a couple jokes previously used by, of all films, King Ralph, settling down on the fact that the royal family is nearly depleted and the A-level spies are all dead. Thus, pencil-pushing bureaucrat Johnny English (Atkinson), by virtue of breathing, gets to take the highest level of MI6 espionage.

The evil plot, it seems, is that French aristocrat Pascal Sauvage (Malkovich), who has a distant rite to the throne now that all the other heirs are out of the line. With a gun pointing towards one of the queen’s prized corgis, she signs over the throne to a man who plans to turn the entire island into a prison (he has evidently cleft ideas from John Carpenter films). With Johnny English, his undervalued sidekick Bough (Miller), and the mysteriously omnipresent Lorna Campbell (Imbruglia) trying to crack this plan, how can Sauvage ever succeed?

Probably the greatest mistake the film makes is that it seems to believe it is funnier than it actually is. All the musical cues arrive on time and the direction by Peter Howitt highlights all the pratfalls that we are meant to roll over in laughter for, which hurts the laughs that are truly earned.

Oddly enough, Johnny English, a film made before the pangs of war and the anti-French wave engulfed America, has been accused of having some Francophobe agenda built out of a Anglophone cooperative. There are jokes made at the French’s expense, but they have more the jibing feel of two neighboring countries often befuddled by the self-importance of the other (it’s not unlike an American film featuring a joke about Canadians, or vice-versa). I saw the film in Paris on Bastille Day weekend, and the biggest laughs for this audience, enjoying the film in subtitles, came in the French jokes. Well, all of them except the line that “the only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion.” I think I was the only one laughing out loud at that one.

©2003, David Perry,, 18 July 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry