To be perfectly honest, I don’t know why spy parodies aren’t as funny as they should be. After all, when you’re freed of the responsibility of coming up with a half-decent plot, shouldn’t your entire time be spent coming up with jokes and gags? As was the case with “Agent Cody Banks”, “The In-Laws”, and a dozen other Spy Parodies in the last few years (including the curiously poor “XXX”), the English film “Johnny English” doesn’t begin to make the most out of the inherent freedom that comes with not having to worry about actual plot.
“Johnny English” stars Atkinson as the titular character, a British government employee who works in the less-than-exciting MI-7 branch, which is just one number from being the same department as the one James Bond is from. Johnny has dreams of being a spy, but of course he’s rather incompetent, so that tends to hinder a secret agent. But all that changes when Britain’s ace spies are all killed in farfetched circumstances, leaving Johnny and his assistant Bough (Ben Miller) to be promoted and go in search of the culprits.
Johnny immediately latches onto shady French businessman Pascal Sauvage, played by John Malkovich with a terrible French accent (or some type of accent). In fact, Malkovich looks physically pained by every inane “accented” dialogue he has to spit out. Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia co-stars as Lorna Campbell, an Interpol agent also after Sauvage. You see, the French tycoon plans on taking over the English throne and turning the country into one big gigantic prison, thus making billions from the endeavor. How exactly this devious plan would make him billions is, well, your guess is as good as mine, and probably better.
Imbruglia is quite attractive in the role, although seeing her supposedly “falling for” the 50ish Atkinson is a bit disconcerting. After all, Atkinson is no (and you’ll pardon the comparison) Michael Douglas, who also had a woman of Imbruglia’s age fawning over him in “The In-Laws”. Actually, for a movie devoid of the necessity to come up with a half-decent plot, it’s strange how little comedy there is in “Johnny English”. I haven’t really seen that many things Atkinson has done, but judging by “English” alone, I don’t see the appeal. There’s very little physical comedy to be found, something I’m told Atkinson is known for. Then again, there are a lot of scenes of Atkinson making faces, putting the spotlight on those two big moles on his mug.
As a comedy, I guess there’s enough in “Johnny English” to make it not a complete waste of time. Although I could have done without some of the mistaken identity sequences (including one at a cemetery that just falls flat), the scenes with John Malkovich (“Knockaround Guys”) is the one funny constant. Although French people will probably not take too kindly to Malkovich’s Sauvage, as a non-French I have to admit that his portrayal is quite funny. Again, I’m not even sure what accent Malkovich is doing; at one point I was sure he was going for German.
A big aspect of “Johnny English” that fails to deliver, I think, is the character itself. Johnny isn’t a complete goofball, but actually seems to have some spy skills. Although he never really knows more than he keeps claiming he does to his assistant Ben Miller, Johnny is not completely a fool. Which might have been a missed opportunity. Wouldn’t it be funnier if Johnny were a complete fool? A total moron without a single ounce of ability as a secret agent, which makes his sudden promotion to secret agent mined with comedic possibilities? Why make Johnny semi-competent at all? As a result, I just didn’t laugh a lot at Atkinson, which I think I’m supposed to do.
As pointed out, plots in these Spy Parodies are such afterthoughts that it’s pointless to consider them failures. How could they be problematic if they were never meant to be even just a bit realistic in the first place?
I didn’t laugh that much with “Johnny English”, but it wasn’t a complete bore. At just 80 minutes, the whole thing moved fast enough that most of the flat gags get glossed over quickly by the ones that do work. I guess that’s a good thing — although not good enough that I would voluntarily watch this movie again.
Peter Howitt (director) / Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, William Davies (screenplay)
CAST: Rowan Atkinson …. Johnny English
Natalie Imbruglia …. Lorna Campbell
Ben Miller …. Bough
John Malkovich …. Pascal Sauvage