Movies set in England haven't exactly been the talk around the tea cozy this month. Last weekend, "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" opened to stagnant reviews (including mine) and it saw an estimated 56% drop this weekend. This weekend those crazy Brits bring us "Johnny English," a spoof of Bond movies starring Mr. Bean a.k.a. Rowan Atkinson. It's better than the "League," but it's still nothing smashingly good.
Johnny English is a low-level doofus working for MI7 (in Bond movies it's MI6) who fantasizes about being a secret agent. We see this in the opening scene where he infiltrates some palace until we realize he's only daydreaming, which you'll probably realize far before they show it on the screen. He worships the real agents, including the ultra-smooth Agent One. But when all the agents die in an explosion, Johnny English is the only one left to figure out who stole the Crown Jewels.
The movie feels like they took a Bond movie and substituted Inspector Gadget in the lead role. He's really overconfident, considering his lack of skills and screws stuff up only to have his partner Bough (Miller) or Interpol hottie Lorna (Imbruglia) fix it for him. And like Mr. Gadget, he constantly misuses the, well, gadgets that he has, including one scene where he accidentally injures his boss' secretary with a spy pen. You could even say that this movie has also taken material from the 1991 movie "King Ralph" where the royal family dies and the only heir to the throne is an unwanted American, played by John Goodman. This is similar to Johnny English in how he comes to be a secret agent, and in a part at the end, which I won't spoil for you.
The acting here isn't too bad, overall. Atkinson is a master at using facial expressions to convey humor, and a lot of it works here. His delivery is good, even if some of the material he's given doesn't work sometimes. He shows a surprisingly good presence on screen, where he's usually a bungling idiot ("Rat Race" "Mr. Bean"). He carries the movie quite well, but the problem is there isn't really a whole lot for him to carry.
The supporting performances are slightly above average. Pop singer Imbruglia does a fairly decent job in her feature film debut as Lorna, and Miller is O.K. as Bough. Which brings us to the most improbable member of the whole cast, master character actor John Malkovich. I had no idea he was in the movie, seeing that most of the ad's for the movie focused on Atkinson, and I was really surprised when I saw his name in the opening credit sequence. I'm an enormous fan of Malkovich and he's one of the best actors to play a villain that you can get in Hollywood these days. So I suppose it's not totally surprising that he plays, you guessed it, the bad guy Pascal Sauvage. He does a pretty good job, as always, but the French accent he tried to pass off just didn't work that much. I mean, he pulled off that Russian accent in "Rounders" so well you'd think he could pull off a French accent, but it just doesn't work that well.
Something that I thought was pretty cool was that 2 of the movie's screenwriters were spoofing movies that they wrote themselves. Writing team Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who collaborated on Johnny English with William Davies, also wrote the last two Bond movies "The World is Not Enough" and last year's "Die Another Day." I see it as the equivalent to what would happen if Kevin Williamson, the writer of "Scream," wrote "Scary Movie," which, unfortunately, he didn't. The script itself works in showing how English is always in the right place at the wrong time and there is a lot of hillarious material. But the story is a bit dull, with an improbable ending and a lot of jokes that just totally missed, one of them involving one of the most ridiculous quotes I have ever heard: "Jesus is coming. Look busy." I was dumbstruck when I saw (don't ask) and heard that.
Director Peter Howitt, who's last work was 2001's underrated "Antitrust," does a pretty good job at the helm of this action-filled comedy (What is it with British spy comedies having a ton of action sequences in them? See: that "Austin Powers" guy). Howitt handles the action parts better than "Austin" counterpart Jay Roach, with some pretty good chase scenes with a souped up Aston-Martin. There's a couple of minor things that he should have caught that bugged me a little, like English and Lorna driving from England to France. Hmmm I didn't see any wings on that Aston-Martin. Now some might call my criticism of this "nitpicking," but audiences catch this sort of thing, even people who aren't movie geeks like myself. But overall, Howitt earned his keep.
Johnny English is a movie about what would happen if Bond turned into Bean. You'll laugh, pretty hard in some points, and I suppose it's worth seeing if you're bored and matinee prices are in effect. The tagline for Johnny English is "He knows no fear. He knows know danger. He knows nothing." That pretty much sums the experience of seeing it. You don't have to fear of being in danger of seeing a movie as bad as "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." But, in the end, you'll know nothing you didn't already know before about Bean or the British spy genre.