The title is Johnny English Reborn, but the film contains nothing even remotely resembling a rebirth. If anything, it remains in the stagnant quagmire that made the original Johnny English so unbearable. It’s strained, predictable, and desperately unfunny – a film that doesn’t showcase the comedic talents of star Rowan Atkinson so much as abuses them. He’s essentially on par with a sideshow freak or a circus animal, his physicality and learned behaviors exploited by filmmakers looking to turn a profit. I wonder: Does he really enjoy making these kinds of movies? The best comedians, I believe, are innately aware that there are standards even in comedy. It’s about eliciting an emotional reaction from an unexpected situation; it’s not about acting goofy in a hopeless plea for attention.
For those who have not seen the first film, Johnny English is a British Intelligence agent that originally appeared in a series of credit card commercials in the U.K. He’s an awkward mix of suave and nerdy, and in spite of his occupation, he’s completely inept and solves cases only by the grace of God. I once described him as the miraculous illegitimate love child of James Bond and Jacques Clouseau, and I think it still applies. In this film, English (Atkinson) returns to London after a retreat to Tibet, where he escaped to five years earlier after a mission in Mozambique went horribly wrong. He was trained in the ways of martial arts by a group of monks, and of course, the elder can always be counted on to say all of the clichéd proverbs about strength, cunning, and discipline. His exercises include walking barefoot across fiery coals, being used as a battering ram on punching bags, and dragging heavy stones with his genitals. Oh, and he’s conditioned to not flinch in pain when kicked in the testicles.
He returns because, much to the bewilderment and chagrin of Pamela Thornton, the new head of Intelligence (Gillian Anderson), he has been deemed the best agent for a new mission. In a nutshell, he must prevent a team of international assassins from killing the Chinese premier and kick starting a wave of global chaos. He will be joined by a rookie sidekick named Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), who, like his original sidekick played by Ben Miller, can do little more than politely say, “Yes, sir.” As the mission progresses, English becomes aware of a secret unit of assassins known as Vortex and of specially designed metal key fragments that, when combined, grant access to a weapon of tremendous power and, shall we say, influence. He will also become acquainted with his idol, the dashing Simon Ambrose (Dominic West), and a clinical psychologist named Kate Summers (Rosamund Pike), the latter destined to become English’s love interest.
The plot, though annoyingly routine, is not what makes watching this movie such an unpleasant experience. We have to endure scene after scene of physical gags that aren’t all that funny to begin with and only become less funny the more they’re stretched out. Case in point: A short, elderly Chinese assassin (Pik-Sen Lim) who poses as a cleaning lady and whose tools conceal dangerous weapons like machine guns and chainsaws. She will repeatedly pop up in disguise and attempt to kill English. Likewise, English will repeatedly tackle and physically beat her, only to eventually discover that it’s not the assassin at all but rather a similarly built little old lady. On two occasions, both at a children’s birthday party, the hapless victim is Thornton’s mother. I will not reveal who English tackles and beats on the third occasion, but rest assured, it’s not the Chinese assassin.
Another issue is director Oliver Parker’s insistence on having silly things happen while important things are being explained by other characters. Example: A scene in Kate’s apartment in which English has difficulty putting on his pants because of a wounded leg. The shot is set up so that Kate sits directly in the center, sitting at her desk looking at her computer screen, and ostensibly at us. English is behind her, jumping around clumsily. When he finally does get his pants on, he quickly realizes that they’re backwards. While this is going on, Kate is trying to tell him – and, vicariously, us – about something odd she noticed on surveillance camera footage, something that could help solve the mystery at hand. The problem is, we’re too distracted by English acting foolishly to take notice of her. Her words fade into the background when we should be listening intently.
I should, of course, address the hilariously preposterous notion of English and Kate falling in love. This is not a matter of bad chemistry or poor casting; Johnny English is a caricature so innately ridiculous that no female character, regardless of the actress playing her, could conceivably have romantic feelings for him. In the first film, I watched as a secret agent played by Natalie Imbruglia professed her growing affection, and I needed every ounce of will power I had to suppress hysterical incredulous laughter. I’ll bet that if either film had shown more of an effort to be funny, this wouldn’t have mattered – we would be too busy laughing at the jokes to care. Movies like Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn represent an unhealthy, disrespectful tradition in which laughter is generated by pandering to audiences. They sooner we realize we’re better than that, the better the chances of these movies not getting made.