Film review: Johnny English Reborn

23 September 2011

Written by: GIULIO DI GIORGIO

In Johnny English Reborn, Rowan Atkinson of Blackadder and Mr Bean fame is back in his role as Britain’s most accident-prone spy. After a massive security failure in Mozambique five years earlier, English has been stripped of his knighthood and sacked, and is hiding out in Tibet in an attempt to avoid his shameful past.

But British secret agents, even terrible ones, don’t stay retired for long. MI7 has wind of an assassination plot and their one source refuses to speak to anyone except English. So in spite of having become a household name for his mistakes at MI7, English is recalled to a meeting with the head of MI7, Pegasus (Gillian Anderson). During the meeting he embarrasses himself ten times over in the space of five minutes as well as meeting the lovely Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike), a behavioural psychologist who finds English to be a fascinating case study.

Pegasus assigns the young Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) to accompany English to Hong Kong. Tucker, who thankfully possesses the common sense that English lacks, is supposed to make sure that English ‘follows protocol’ and does his paperwork – things have changed in the five years of English’s absence. Throughout the film, Tucker turns out to be a valuable ally.

The movie gets off to a slow start, but picks up speed once English and Tucker arrive in Hong Kong. They uncover – somewhat accidentally – that a group of three assassins known as Vortex are plotting to assassinate the Chinese premier at a meeting with the British Prime Minister in a week’s time. This pits English in a race against the clock to figure out what the plan is and how to stop it. It soon becomes evident that CIA, KGB and MI7 double agents are involved, which ratchets up the stakes a few notches.

Johnny English Reborn, as with the original film, is a parody of the spy genre and in particular of the James Bond films. The original Johnny English was written by two Bond scriptwriters, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and this movie is Bond-infused throughout. The gadgets and general plot structure are reminiscent of Bond, but there are also scenes that clearly allude to famous Bond scenes.

However, this is so much more fun than Bond. English’s voice activated car is sleek and fast, but English forgets about the voice activation part and at one point ends up with his car following him like a huge dog. In the boat chase, English commandeers an expensive powerboat and chases down the enemy’s inflatable dinghy. Chase scenes in Bond might look good, but English’s idiocy guarantees that these ones are funnier.

English is a hapless fool most of the time, but seemingly from nowhere manages to pull out the necessary fighting skills and spying ability on occasions. The murderous grandmother character who pops up from Hong Kong to Buckingham Palace, usually with a vacuum cleaner full of deadly weapons, is entertaining and provides continuity. It’s hard to see what purpose she serves in the plot, since most of the time she seems intent on killing English, but at other times she’s busy killing the bad guys instead.

Much of the plot relies on leaps of faith – in this sense it is not dissimilar to the Bond films, but Johnny English Reborn never takes itself seriously. Unlike the Bond films, there’s no attempt to make the fanciful seem real. The unfolding love interest in particular is a bit of a stretch. The film relies on the humour of Atkinson’s character to pull off the thin plot and predictable comedy. I can’t imagine any other actor who could have played English so well – Atkinson’s ability to use his face and body for comic effect is unchanged since his Mr Bean years.

As a Bond spoof, Johnny English Reborn is fun, though I suspect the fun would be wearing off for anyone who saw the original Johnny English. As a vehicle for Atkinson, the film works well. It might be utterly predictable, lightweight and a bit silly, but the humour makes it all worthwhile.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and a former editorial member of upstart. She blogs at equineocean and you can follow her on Twitter: @equineocean.