OK, true confession time. I honestly don't remember the first "Johnny English!" And I, of course, fashion myself as a movie buff. Of course, I do. I review films for a living and see over a hundred of 'em a year at least! But the 2003 original eluded me. So, when I sat down to watch this latest James Bond spoof from Rowan Atkinson and friends, I thought the title "Johnny English Reborn" was part of the joke. Only afterward did I hear a few parents comparing this latest effort to the first film while walking out of the theater to their cars.
I guess it's one of the film's pluses that you didn't have to see the first one (or even be aware of its existence) to follow the sequel. Atkinson plays the title character, a bumbling British secret agent who was relieved of duty years earlier for letting a beautiful woman distract him while an African diplomat under his protection was assassinated. The film picks up with Johnny English in a remote monastery receiving instruction from a collection of monks on how to find inner peace and how to endure multiple kicks to the crotch without flinching or even feeling pain.
The British government should send this film's adult audience members to this camp in preparation of seeing "Johnny English Reborn!" I kid, I kid. It's not that bad. The production values on this are actually quite impressive, and the film has an uncommonly good cast for such a silly, niche project. It's just not very funny or very clever. Until Daniel Craig came along in the role of 007, the James Bond movies had pretty much become bloated, wink-wink spoofs of themselves with Pierce Brosnan in the role. He was a bit more serious than Roger Moore. But those last four flicks before "Casino Royale" were in love with gadgetry, playful physical humor, and increasingly outlandish and absurd stunts.
"Johnny English Reborn" doesn't really go far enough in spoofing the 007 series' excesses. And Johnny English isn't a strong enough character to be mentioned in the same breath as Leslie Nielsen's Frank Drebbin or Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, which is clearly the aim here. English has his moments. Atkinson is at his best when he is doing the silliest things with the straightest face, such as leading half of the British Secret Service on a chase through London while piloting a rocket-powered wheelchair. But the film has to walk a tightrope between Johnny being mostly incompetent with sporadic bursts of competence in order for the story to continue moving forward. And the screenplay just isn't smart enough to keep working English's bumbling into the mechanics of the plot.
And the plot is fairly complicated for a spoof, involving multiple rogue agents possessing three parts to a key that will unlock a secret vault that contains a CIA-crafted, mind-control drug to be used to get a British agent close enough to the Chinese Premier to assassinate him. A turncoat British spy is one of the baddies. At the same time, the current caper ties in to the mission in Africa, in which English was relieved of his duties.
Like I wrote earlier, the production values are quite impressive. The action is spread out over England, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. And director Oliver Parker does a surprisingly nice job filming the various action sequences and fight scenes in full frame as opposed to the herky-jerky "Bourne" style or the suspend-the-laws-of-gravity "Matrix" style that has permeated far too many movies. And the cast for this would fit right in with a real James Bond movie, including Dominic West of "The Wire" as the MI-5 traitor, Rosamund Pike as a government psychiatrist who falls for English, and Gillian Anderson pulling off a passable British accent as Johnny's all-business boss.
Going the PG route, this is fairly safe to take the kids to. If they've seen the "Spy Kids" movies, they're used to this kind of over-the-top spoof action. This flick is actually better than the last two "Spy Kids" flicks. While I wouldn't recommend paying full admission price, you could do worse flipping past it on a rainy Saturday afternoon at home while looking for family entertainment. I give it a 5 out of 10 (T. Durgin)