Mark Reviews Movies

JOHNNY ENGLISH

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Howitt

Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Natalie Imbruglia, John Malkovich, Tim Pigott-Smith, Greg Wise

MPAA Rating: PG (for comic nudity, some crude humor and language)

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 7/18/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Perhaps it's foolish of me to partially forgive a movie for its status as a general failure because of its little details, but I am too amused by Johnny English's little details to care.  I honestly believe that true greatness lies in the details, and although that statement is wasted on a movie like this, it at least gives you an idea of where I'm coming from.  That's probably why I like Rowan Atkinson in the first place.  He takes the tiny moments with simplicity, whether it's a raise of the brow or a shift of the eyes, and he also has an admirable control of his physicality.  It's a shame, really, that he hasn't found much opportunity in film, but considering how closely related he is to his famous Mr. Bean creation, it isn't surprising.  His gift for physical comedy is evident, but he consistently works here beyond the physical gags, even though the movie is too often working against him.  Johnny English doesn't work as a spoof of the spy genre, and moreover, as you watch Atkinson at work, you begin to notice how easy this is for him—too easy, in fact.

Atkinson plays the titular English, an inept junior agent with delusions of grandeur.  He retrieves intelligence for MI7 and the agency's top spy Agent One (Greg Wise).  Tragically, Agent One dies while on a mission (he was unable to open a submarine hatch which English says he checked the codes for personally), and even more tragically, every other agent dies in an explosion at his funeral (for which English was heading the security—are you catching a pattern yet?).  Only English and his assistant Bough (Ben Miller) remain, which means that English receives a quick promotion to the top.  His first assignment is to handle security for the unveiling of the newly restored Crown Jewels, thanks to the work of French businessman Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich).  Also present at the gala is the mysterious Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia).  Of course, there's a successful attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, and now it's up to English to discover the thief, return the priceless symbols of the Crown, and make sure no one finds out how bad of a screw-up he is.

It's kind of pointless for me to mention that Sauvage is in fact a criminal mastermind and the heir to the Throne many, many times removed, but there it is.  It's also redundant to say that all of the gags revolve around what an incompetent spy English is, but that's how it goes.  Some of it works to a certain extent, although that's primarily because of Atkinson's skill with the jokes.  Typically, what garners a laugh isn't the joke itself but Atkinson's subsequent reaction to his error.  Fairly early on, there's a predictable moment when English accidentally shoots his boss' secretary with a tranquilizer pen, but it's funny to see him try to cover up her visible head by hopping along as his boss moves across the room.  And it's amusing to see a group of emergency medical personnel appear later as English's superior has his back turned to their presence.  This is the standard thrust of the movie's humor.  Eventually, the jokes themselves get old, and not even Atkinson can keep the energy up.  Later on there's an extended gag that centers on a secret entrance to Sauvage's mansion through the help's toilet, and it's more disgusting than funny.

Yet there's still something endearing about the whole of the proceedings and at least a few specific moments of hilarity.  I'm amused by the fact that Bough is a decidedly better agent.  While English's gun inevitably falls apart on him, Bough is able to get a few shots off.  And no matter how many times English goes over a plan to infiltrate Sauvage's office, he still manages to land on the wrong building, while Bough successfully completes his side of the job.  It's a bit odd no one notices this, and it could have developed into a joke.  Maybe the assistant, fed up with the lack of recognition, could go turncoat.  Predictable, yes, but it could have worked.  You also have to at least giggle at English's drink of choice: Bloody Mary—but not too spicy.  And if you're not even the slightest bit tickled by the sight of John Malkovich with a ridiculous parted-down-the-middle coiffure and the sound of his equally ridiculous French accent, I don't feel reluctant to state that there might be something wrong with you.

Alas, the little moments do not make Johnny English worthwhile, although they do mean a decent amount of chuckles and guffaws.  I'm sure Atkinson is capable of much better than this, but Johnny English is the kind of character that only hints at potential.  He does, admittedly, have a catchy theme song, though.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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