A wisp of a parody, a Bond satire no more than two or three drafts removed from its pitch, Rowan Atkinson’s spy spoof is wildly uneven and yet, at times, nothing less than wildly entertaining.
Think “The Saint” meets “Fawlty Towers” and you’ll have a pretty fair idea as to the approach. Where the Austin Powers films refract the milieu through a sensibility far removed, “Johnny English” gives us the ultimate insider’s twist on the 007 tradition. Not only is it a British production, two of the writers who worked on the script-Neal Purvis and Robert Wade-are veterans of actual Bond missions (“The World is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day”).
At the start of the story, English works for British intelligence but has so little of it he’s at the bottom of the Beaurocratic ladder. He fantasizes about the life of glamour and adventure led by real agents and only gets the chance to become one himself after accidentally blowing up the entire force. Fortunately for English, the only secret service employees more oblivious than he is are the twits who run the place. He’s immediately promoted and entrusted with the security of the crown jewels, which have just undergone restoration and are about to be unveiled at a high society gala in the Tower of London.
Naturally, they’re stolen right from under his nose and the balance of the film-that’s right, his superiors still haven’t let him go-is devoted to his inept, borderline psychotic attempts to recover them.
All the elements required for a satire of this sort are covered: There are the clever spy gadgets. For the most part, the picture makes clever comic use of these. There is the official babe of mystery. Surprisingly, actress-turned singer-turned actress Natalie Imbruglia makes an engaging and effective one of these. There are the overblown stunts. One or two of the movie’s funniest moments arise from these. A personal favorite involves a plan to parachute at night onto the headquarters of the billionaire villain English suspects of masterminding the theft. Naturally, he lands on the wrong building and fails to realize it until well after he’s put half a hospital under arrest.
And, as mentioned, there’s the mandatory evil mastermind. This is the area in which picture makes its one major misstep. John Malkovich gives an over the top performance as a Frenchman who believes himself the rightful heir to the British throne and concocts a silly plan to right this wrong by having himself crowned by an accomplice made up to look like the Archbishop of Canterbury. One would have to go back as far as 1987’s “Making Mr. Right” to find an example of the fine actor making as total a fool of himself. The only thing worse than his accent is his wig.
Luckily, Atkinson is as watchable as Malkovich is awful. From “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Rat Race” to the international sensation “Bean” and now this, the performer has proven himself a one-of-a-kind talent, a comic actor who combines the expressiveness of a silent film star with a gift for physical comedy to rival that of anyone on the planet-Jim Carrey included.
The spirit Atkinson channels throughout “Johnny English,” however, is really that of Peter Sellers. There’s something undeniably Clouseau about Atkinson’s bumbling agent, though most in attendance will no doubt be too young to recognize it. The fact is the picture has infinitely more in common with the Pink Panther films than with the franchise to which it will be most frequently compared.
It’s definitely the Mini Me of spy spoofs. I doubt we’ll see a sequel. Catchphrases will not be making their way into popular speech and Atkinson will not be popping up in a Madonna video anytime soon. Nonetheless, the answer to the question raised by its release-is there comic gold yet to be mined from this film form-turns out to be an emphatic “Yeah, baby!”