Movie Review: Johnny English Strikes Again

Johnny English Strikes Again is the third installment in the Johnny English franchise, starring Rowan Atkinson as bumbling Secret Service agent, Johnny English. It’s been seven years since the sequel, Johnny English Reborn and while Atkinson has got older, greyer and hopefully wiser, you can’t separate that rubber face from his Mr Bean character. While Mr Bean’s Holiday was a significant improvement on Mr Bean: The Movie, Johnny English Strikes Again is almost a hybridisation of both franchises. Mr Bean is known for his universal comedy, which relies predominantly on physicality and grunts rather than dialogue. Atkinson tips the hat as Johnny English, making a number of references to famous Bean moments.

Atkinson is also known for Blackadder and his role as Inspector Fowler in the underrated UK comedy series, The Thin Blue Line. He and longtime collaborator, Ben Elton, show that while he’s incredibly expressive, he also has a way with wit and words, managing to blend the two components of his performances into something singularly Rowan Atkinson. His unique look, priceless expressions and peculiar mannerisms, make him one-of-a-kind. While no one asked for another sequel, Johnny English Strikes Again comes at a time where a bit of escapist silliness is most welcome. His latest action comedy adventure kicks off after a cyber attack revealing all known British agents forces the powers that be to bring their top man back from retirement.

As a spy spoof, in the same vein as Get Smart and Austin Powers, something must be said about the timing of a lightweight throwaway comedy. In this sense and during this period of economic, political and social heaviness, Johnny English Strikes Again couldn’t have come soon enough. The screenplay finds some thematic resonance with the idea that many have become alienated or left behind by the proliferation of rapidly advancing technology. Positioning Johnny English as an old school spy, and constantly reminding us of the new world we live in, it’s quite fun to have the British rogue opting for the traditional garb over the new fiddly devices. Spoofing spy technology, the silliness of small gadgets, the practical use of handheld devices and poking fun at just about every new trend in terms of technology, Johnny English Strikes Again will appeal to young and old.

Instead of a simple rinse-and-repeat, series screenwriter William Davies has turned Johnny English Strikes Again into a buddy movie, giving Johnny a sidekick and “boff” in Ben Miller from Death in Paradise. Having a straight guy to play off, who is the actual brains behind the operation, injects a number of inside jokes and creates a curious dynamic for the duo. English is constantly blundering his way through operations with poor decision-making turning every classic spy moment into pure hilarity. Paying no heed to his sidekick’s helpful advice, adds an element of schadenfreude to the misadventure.

“Snorted… not stirred or even shaken, really.”

It’s funny to see Rowan Atkinson sending his character into a number of humiliating and bumbling situations, much like Lieutenant Frank Drebin of The Naked Gun. This is where the comedy of Johnny English truly shines, and the filmmakers deliver a number of amusing set pieces around the notion of an agent out of his depth. While they add to the overall enjoyment level, you can’t help but feel they could have been leveraged more… ducking out before delivering the knock out laugh. These scenes seem to be cut short, trying to keep a clipped pace rather than getting into serious comedy terrain. Perhaps this was a deliberate pacing adjustment and while the comedy isn’t expressed quite enough, this lightweight approach keeps things nippy.

It may be a sequel, but features heavyweights like Emma Thompson as a spoof of Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK. We also have Jake Lacy from the US version of The Office and Olga Kurylenko as the “Bond” girl. Thompson adds nuance to her performance, not simply writing it off as straight up comedy effort. Kurylenko is gorgeous and makes a wonderful polar opposite to Atkinson’s English. Lacy is a take on the next Zuckerberg, playing into the recent spate of technological villains, by being the tech billionaire who wants to take control of the world.

Johnny English Strikes Again is over the top, contrived to the point of no return and knows exactly what it is… silly, lightweight, enjoyable spy spoof fun. The filmmakers have added genre credibility with a roaring Astin Martin and giving the mission an international spy flavour by shooting in France and London. Atkinson is spurred on by “boff”, who adds a fresh spin to things and while it remains quite cartoonish, the ride is amusing.

It’s good to see some of the imaginative ways they try to refresh a typical and well worn genre, but it sticks to its strengths, by giving Atkinson the limelight. Rowan Atkinson is the talent and the film is geared around him and his madcap antics. An unconventional spy, brought in for a job that’s way over his ability, but somehow managing to land on his feet, it’s unabashedly a fun espionage romp.

The premise is a bit convoluted, but that’s not what’s important here. Johnny English Strikes Again knows that it’s a bit nutty, toys with the central concept of an unconventional spy, tips the hat to the genre as a whole and while it doesn’t go very deep, it remains entertaining and ridiculous as ever.

The bottom line: Entertaining

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