By Jim Slotek
Never very funny to begin with, Rowan Atkinson’s Bond-spoofing Johnny English trilogy runs its course, to the ground, with the comically inert Johnny English Strikes Again.
For starters, it’s never a good sign when the thing you’re spoofing is not even a “thing” anymore. The Bond films themselves have been in relative limbo, with, ostensibly, a 25th Bond coming out in 2019, four years after Daniel Craig said he’d rather “slit his wrists” than do another. If a suicidal urge strikes him again, I’d suggest he sit through a Johnny movie instead.
The Johnny films have been even more sporadic, with the first, 2003’s Johnny English, followed eight years later by Johnny English Reborn, and another seven years leading up to this one – or about the regularity, I’m guessing, of Atkinson’s accountant telling him he desperately needs an infusion of funds.
Every second of Johnny English Strikes Again has the feel of a contractual obligation fulfilled. Close-up reaction shots of Johnny’s mugging Mr. Bean-ish expressions are squeezed for what seems minutes, squelching any chance of an action-movie breaking out. Every gag goes on forever and nowhere, like a sketch in the last half hour of a Saturday Night Live episode.
Johnny poses as a waiter to swipe a suspect’s phone as he eats dinner. Suddenly he must fake knowing how to flambe shrimp. Cue the firetrucks. Johnny practices breaking into a super-villain’s house using virtual reality. Oblivious to the outside world, he walks the streets of London, beating up baristas with breadsticks and pushing little old ladies’ wheelchairs into street traffic. Johnny invents a cocktail while trying to woo a Russian spy (ex Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) and the umbrella gets stuck in his nose. Johnny puts on a suit of armour to take on the bad guys. There’s even a cheap “mooning” scene in front of the entire world press.
If there was ever any doubt about what Atkinson is spoofing, Johnny English Strikes Back actually steals the premise of the Bond film Skyfall (minus that movie’s budget, understanding of technology and pacing, comic and otherwise). It opens with the hacking of MI6, um, sorry MI7, and the theft of the identities of all Her Majesty’s field agents.
The Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) is told that all current agents have been compromised and can’t be used in the investigation. “So, bring back an old one!” she shouts.
Re-enter Johnny, who’s become a schoolteacher, showing his charges how to fly from class to class using a zip-line, how to camouflage themselves as a chalkboard and how to hold a martini glass with insouciance. I wish I could tell you any of this was funny.
The premise sets up an old-dog-wins-using-retro methods approach. Johnny turns down the spy cars on offer in favour of an old Aston-Martin that doesn’t even have GPS, and refuses to carry a phone because they can be traced. And, of course, he requests his trusty old sidekick-lackey, Bough (Ben Miller).
But scripter William Davies, writer of the original Johnny English, evokes an even older piece of technology with his comedic approach. To wit: It seems as if he is incapable of telling a joke, or introducing a plot-development that isn’t clumsily telegraphed.
Case in point, further hacks are made on the British rail system and London traffic lights, with the power grid itself in the crosshairs. So, the PM turns desperately to an egotistical Silicon Valley billionaire named Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who has invented an algorithm that can run (or conversely take down) a whole country. Um…
That sound you hear is a telegraph machine going dit-dit-dit-dash-dit. Gosh, I wonder who the bad guy is?
Ultimately, there’s nothing even bad enough to enjoy in Johnny English Strikes Again. It’s just cardboard characters and empty screen time, labouring toward its conclusion – which, granted, is a journey of only 88 minutes. But that can seem forever if you’re moving that slowly.
Johnny English Strikes Again. Directed by David Kerr Written by William Davies. Starring Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller and Olga Kurylenko. Opens wide, Friday, October 26.