It’s not uncommon to behold theatrical movies based on television shows (Bean) or skits (Wayne’s World, The Blues Brothers). Johnny English, however, is a feature-length expansion of a series of British credit card commercials in which Rowan Atkinson played a bumbling English spy with a tendency to become entangled in embarrassing situations. While the name of Atkinson’s character in the ads was changed for the film, the concept is identical. And surprisingly, despite a harsh critical reception, the translation from television ad to feature film actually works – Johnny English is more fun and assured than it had any right to be. Additionally, it represents the ultimate twist on the usual James Bond secret agent spoof – it’s a British production, it was written by 007 veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and Atkinson even had a minor role in the unofficial James Bond movie Never Say Never Again back in the ’80s.
England’s most inept spy, Johnny English (Atkinson) works a lowly desk job at MI7 but dreams of a more distinguished position in the service. When MI7’s top agent is killed in action and the rest of the senior agents are killed by a bomb blast, Johnny and his assistant Bough (Miller) are the only ones available to be recruited for active duty. Their first assignment is to oversee the unveiling of the recently restored Crown Jewels, which are stolen on the night of the unveiling. Their adversary, as it turns out, is rich French industrialist Pascal Sauvage (Malkovich) who looks to claim the throne of England for himself and transform the country into a large prison. During his investigation, Johnny encounters Interpol agent Lorna Campbell (Imbruglia) who’s also looking to thwart Sauvage’s evil intentions.
In the years since its release, Johnny English has become one of the most maligned productions on Atkinson’s filmography to date. Yet, in this reviewer’s opinion, the film is a bright, charming and bubbly action-comedy, and it’s a perfectly serviceable few hours of escapist entertainment. The film is consistently well-paced thanks to Peter Howitt’s lively direction, and a decent amount of jokes are scattered throughout the 100-minute running time. Admittedly, the jokes are often sophomoric and dumb as the filmmakers relied on predictable slapstick and at times toilet humour, but the film is often amusing nevertheless. Plus, even when the jokes stop or are dire, high energy levels ensure that the film is never a chore to get through, which is more than what can be said for most Hollywood comedies. Admittedly, though, more clever Mr. Bean-esque belly-laughs would definitely have been beneficial.
Rowan Atkinson’s presence in this film is the main factor that allows the gags to actually land. As evidenced through his work on stage and screen (Mr. Bean, Blackadder, etc), he’s a funny-looking man and is the master of facial expressions, not to mention he excels at selling gags with a straight face. His Johnny English role can best be described as the Frank Drebin of James Bond spoofs. Alongside Atkinson is Ben Miller as his sidekick Bough (another character from the original ads). Miller’s performance is easily on par with Atkinson; he has all the trappings of a great, amiable comic performer, not to mention the character is just so easily lovable. And then there’s Australian singer-songwriter Natalie Imbruglia as Lorna Campbell. Imbruglia was an odd choice for an action movie heroine, and she’s merely okay. One of the most important aspects of a Bond movie is the girl, so it’s a shame that Johnny English doesn’t hit a home run in this respect. Rounding out the cast is John Malkovich, who chews the scenery with a hilariously hammy French accent in the role of Pascal Sauvage.
Best described as a combination of Get Smart, Austin Powers and The Pink Panther, Johnny English is a pleasant action-comedy diversion completely undeserving of the scathing reception it endured. Okay, so it’s pretty juvenile, but it’s also innocuous fun that benefits from the inclusion of several good belly-laughs (there’s a particularly notable scene involving ABBA’s Does Your Mother Know that had his reviewer in fits of laughter). If you enjoy dumb humour and can temper your expectations, Johnny English is fun, funny, and never boring. It even spawned a sequel in 2011: Johnny English Reborn.