The British Secret Service is in deep trouble when Mr. Bean, er, Rowan Atkinson, er, Johnny English is on the case.
Although the film's title suggests there might be some deeply relevant British national allegory in the film, post-colonialist comedy fans shouldn't get their hopes up. The plot of Johnny English, such as it is, goes something like this: The title character, a bumbling junior-level spy (Rowan Atkinson) is suddenly thrust into active duty when every other agent in the British Secret Service is blown to smithereens during a bombing at a fellow agent's funeral. When the Crown Jewels are stolen, it's up to English to discover the culprit, and in the process he unearths a plot to replace the Queen of England with a French entrepreneur who has some pretty nasty real estate development plans for Merry Olde Blighty. It's a sorry excuse for a story, sure, but such paltry fare as plot, character development and dialogue don't matter much when you connect the bits with U.K. fave Atkinson hamming it up in his trademark blundering way. And he really is funny in this movie--maybe not pee-your-pants funny, but certainly hoot-out-loud funny. As with any spy spoof, some of the shtick works and some doesn't, but on the whole Atkinson and Co. do a good job in spite of the contrived script and pithy lines writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies have pieced together for them.
If Cervantes' Don Quixote were a modern-day spy, this would be his story. Atkinson tilts at Johnny English's windmills with the vigor and extravagance fans of the comedian's trademarked physical comedy have come to expect. Whether he's crashing a funeral, pantomiming to ABBA in front of his bathroom mirror, invading a hospital with guns blazing or getting his tie caught in a sushi bar conveyor belt, Atkinson gives this movie's hackneyed scenes personality they probably wouldn't have had in any other actor's hands. Comedian and fellow Brit Ben Miller takes his first strokes across the pond as English's sidekick, Bough, playing Sancho Panza to Atkinson's Quixote to fairly good effect. The real "straight man" in this farce, however, is Natalie Imbruglia as love interest Lorna Campbell. The girl can't act her way out of a paper bag, but when you look the way she does in leather pants and stilettos, talent is beside the point. John Malkovich is underutilized as the villain Pascal Sauvage, whose anti-English (that's the nation, not the spy) sentiments have driven him to lay claim to the throne of England, which he plans to use for nefarious purposes.
Based as it is on a character Atkinson created for a TV commercial for a major British credit card, it's not surprising that the characters in Johnny English are far more entertaining when they're improvising 60-second physical comedy scenes than when they're attempting to further the so-called plot. What is surprising is that such pedigreed moviemakers as director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors), production company Working Title Films (producers of Elizabeth, Fargo and Billy Elliot), and producer Mark Huffam (The Hours) are attached to such a silly film. Then again, everybody needs to let loose sometime; maybe this is their idea of a vacation.
The plot may be ridiculous and contrived, but Johnny English is still a pretty darn funny movie.