In a pop-culture era rife with cleverness for its own sake, how did Rowan Atkinson’s new spy-spoof sequel wind up with a title as retro bland as “Johnny English Strikes Again”? Was “Johnny English Is Back!” already taken? How about “The Return of Johnny English”? “Johnny English Strikes Again” is the third in the series of goofy air-popped espionage satires in which Atkinson plays an MI7 agent who is stuck in the James Bond ’60s (that’s the joke, though the real joke is that he dithers and bumbles and disco dances on pep pills and clams up whenever he’s supposed to know anything.) That said, it might as well be the 33rd entry in the series. Because it’s not as if we’re living in a world that’s hungry — starved! — for vintage spy spoofs.
The “Austin Powers” movies took the same comic theme and ran with it in a far more ticklishly crackpot, laugh-out-loud merry-surreal way. Michel Hazanavicius’s “OSS 117” films, starring Jean Dujardin, are succulently deft and detailed period satires. And then, of course, you can go back to the “Naked Gun” films (technically about a police detective, though by the second film Leslie Nielsen was playing him as a global super-sleuth) or Inspector Clouseau, the character Johnny English actually most resembles. He’s that old school, that “classic” and quaint.
There’s a scene in “Johnny English Strikes Again” where Atkinson essentially does Peter Sellers doing Clouseau. Johnny English has to pretend to be a waiter, so he puts on a French accent (which makes it sound like he’s got a bumblebee buzzing around in his throat) and flambés a saucepan full of shrimp, which wind up as charred remains on the floor, but he serves them anyway, along with the tiny bit of champagne he hasn’t used to put out the flames. Funny…sort of. I smile-chuckled in a nod to the polished timing with which Rowan Atkinson can still bring off a sequence like this one, and to the general tradition of destructo-stumblebum comedy it represents. But it’s like watching a farce under glass. Should this be in a sequel or a comedy museum?
The character I thought of most during “Johnny English Strikes Again” was Mr. Bean, Atkinson’s other franchise nitwit, because he’s a much, much funnier creation. Bean, who’s essentially a fearless cretin out of silent comedy, is beyond oblivious; he’s so mired in his passive-aggressive idiocy that he’s impervious — a man-child clown who doesn’t begin to know what he doesn’t know. He’s a holy force of stupidity. Whereas the Johnny English films, because they have to function as spy movies, depend on Johnny being at once inept and (at convenient moments) half not inept. Which just waters down the comedy.
The first “Johnny English” came out 15 years ago and did okay business ($28 million domestic), but “Johnny English Reborn,” in 2011, faltered with only $8 million, and I wouldn’t expect “Johnny English Strikes Again” to fare much better. More than even before, this series has a leftover-goods, what-is-this-movie-doing-here? quality. Yet if you’re a fan of Atkinson’s twinkly egomaniacal absurdism, or just want to revel in that face of his, with its naturally italicized jet-black eyebrows and its mouth twisted into a grimace of befuddlement (Johnny is scowling at everything he doesn’t understand, which is more or less everything), there are a minor handful of scenes in “Johnny English Strikes Again” that will make you laugh. A bit.
The premise is that Britain is under a cyber-attack that has outed the identities of every current MI7 agent. As the prime minster, played by a fulminating Emma Thompson (“Vodka tonic! No vodka, no tonic!”), prepares to host her first G12 summit, Johnny, who is now teaching spy techniques to middle schoolers, is plucked from the obscurity of retirement to chase down the perpetrator. He is reunited with his sidekick, the redoubtable Bough (Ben Miller), and finds himself navigating the most generic of espionage scenarios with the aid of the low technology he still thinks of as high.
He’s driving a vintage Aston Martin that can barely navigate a hairpin turn, and he seems to believe that it’s a mighty advantage to toss away his cell phone because the villain “will never see us coming.” All very mild stuff, but when Johnny has a drink with Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko), a leggy Russian spy he has no idea is a Russian spy (he’s convinced she just wants to have a cocktail with him), his order of a drink called a London Lemming is a hoot. Johnny, of course, is still the nerd version of a Bondian caveman, to the point that when Bough informs him that his own wife is a British Navy captain who commands a nuclear submarine, Johnny stares at him as if he’s just been speaking in Urdu.
The villain is a Silicon Valley billionaire, played by Jake Lacy in as oily-obvious a fashion as the bad guy in a “Smurfs” movie. There’s one sequence that’s vintage Atkinson: Johnny is given a virtual-reality training session (to learn how to navigate the villain’s lair), and after accidentally stepping off the VR treadmill, he wanders through central London with his headset still on, attacking imaginary villains in a bookstore and a bakery, at one point slashing away with a pair of baguettes, which was the moment I gave in to laughter. On occasion, a movie like “Johnny English Strikes Again” will do that to you, but there aren’t enough occasions. The movie just made me wish that Atkinson would now make “Mr. Bean Saves the World” (in the process of trashing it).