[Screen It]

(2003) (Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich) (PG)

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Comedy: A bumbling British agent tries to stop a French villain from becoming the next King of England.
Johnny English (ROWAN ATKINSON) is a desk jockey with the British Secret Service who dreams of becoming a top secret agent. He gets his chance when his work accidentally leaves all of the other agents dead. Accordingly, his superior, Pegasus (TIM PIGOTT-SMITH), assigns him to protect the Crown Jewels.

They're to be unveiled at a restoration ceremony sponsored by French businessman Pascal Sauvage (JOHN MALKOVICH) who runs prisons all around the world. Despite English's best, but bungled intentions, he can't prevent the jewels from being stolen.

From that point on, he and his assistant, Bough (BEN MILLER), along with Interpol agent Lorna Campbell (NATALIE IMBRUGLIA) set out to retrieve the jewels. While doing so, they must also stop Pascal who's intent on using his royal heritage to become the next King of England, all while dealing with English's innate ability to complicate and mess up matters.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Ask anyone who's narrated a story or joke that - unbeknownst to them - had already been told, and they'll likely tell you that the reaction from their "audience" isn't exactly what they had intended or hoped for.

While the temporal proximity of the two events has an effect on such responses, the fact that the second time around lacks the novelty of the first surely affects such reactions. It's even worse if the story or joke teller already knows their audience has heard the offering before (and they know he or she knows that), but tells it anyway (often with some sort of twist).

That happens all of the time in movies, but far more often occurs with general plots rather than specific jokes or moments. There are times, however, when not being first actually works in a film's favor, as was the case in "Big."

Unfortunately, the same does not hold true with "Johnny English," a British spoof of the James Bond character and films. Although it's based on a series of TV commercials in which star Rowan Atkinson also appeared, the film is far from the first to spoof 007.

The most notable, of course, have been Mike Myers' "Austin Powers" films in which he appeared as both the swinging secret agent and his Blofeld-like nemesis. Despite maintaining a generally amusing tone from start to finish, this effort comes off as "Austin Powers Lite" in terms of laugh-producing gags, sheer creativity and its ability to spoof Bond in a highly imaginative fashion.

In terms of character construction and execution, Powers and English are clearly kissing cousins. Both are confident, capable and realize -- but try to cover up -- their shortcomings, but don't recognize and/or are oblivious to just how goofy they really are.

Yet, where Powers was more of an exaggerated spoof, Atkinson's English is more true to 007 in appearance, demeanor and dialogue. That is, except when he's bumbling and stumbling his way from one scene to the next.

As written by William Davies (co-writer of "Twins," "Stop or My Mom Will Shoot") and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade ("Die Another Day," "The World is Not Enough"") and directed by Peter Howitt ("Antitrust, "Sliding Doors"), the film has the British comedy star doing what amounts to just a variation of his popular nitwit Bean character. Fans of his will probably eat up or at least appreciate the offerings. Others, on the other hand, may feel, as I did, that the material is lacking and never goes far enough.

For instance, there's a scene where English interrupts a funeral that he believes is just a front put on by the villains. Although he jumps on the casket, points his gun at the bereaved and then has to act as if he's an escaped mental patient to extract himself from the situation, the scene isn't as hilarious as one imagines it will be and/or as it should and could have been.

The rest of the film follows suit, with various missed or underplayed opportunities mounting as the lackluster underlying plot - dealing with a Frenchman trying to usurp the British monarchy - transports us through the less than 90 minute runtime.

Granted, the A.P. films mostly had throwaway plots. Yet, what they lacked in story depth they made up with terrific, plentiful and often hilarious details as well as one of film's better comedic villains. Alas, this effort is lacking in both categories, particularly in terms of the latter.

No stranger to playing the villain, John Malkovich ("Knockaround Guys," "In the Line of Fire") inhabits the non-humorous character with little flair beyond a forced French accent. Singer turned actress Natalie Imbruglia (making her film debut) isn't much better as the standard Bond-like sidekick girl, while Ben Miller ("Birthday Girl," "Plunkett and Macleane") plays the assistant who usually extracts the hero from any number of predicaments.

All of which leaves Atkinson ("Rat Race," "Bean") to carry the film. While I've found his Bean character alternatively funny and annoying, I enjoyed watching him playing this part. I just wish the filmmakers had surrounded and/or provided him with a better array of jokes, gags and spy humor.

There are some laughs to be had, but they're certainly not as plentiful, imaginative or gut-busting in design or execution as those in the "Austin Powers" films are. If not for them, this effort might have elicited a better reaction and response from yours truly. As it stands, it feels like little more than a recycled joke we've already heard a few too many times. Certainly not horrible but otherwise rather flat comedically, "Johnny English" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 15, 2003 / July 18, 2003

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