Film

Johnny English (2003)

Jesse Hassenger

'He may be a fool, but he's a fool who keeps showing up.'"


Johnny English

Director: Peter Howitt
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, John Malkovich
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Universal
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-07-18

The normally astute Village Voice notes that the British spy comedy Johnny English is "smug with timely zingers like 'The only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion,'" and "recommended strictly for Bush advisers." But English was filmed early in 2002 -- it was released overseas last fall -- and so its French jokes seem, to me, a relic of a simpler time, when the English and French could annoy each other for perfectly hilarious reasons. The potshots are brief and offhand, and contain none of the aggressively ignorant jingoism of the current U.S. quasi-barbs.

In fact, most of these "zingers" come from the title character himself (Rowan Atkinson, erstwhile Mr. Bean), who is depicted as a bit of a twit, though, perhaps inevitably, everyone comes off silly here, British and French alike. It's hard to imagine the filmmakers have an alternate agenda, because English and the movie that bears his name have similarly simple goals: he wants only to be James Bond, icon of British cool, and the movie wants only to parody the Bond franchise.

Much has been made of the idea that, in the wake of the Austin Powers comedies, Bond movies have been parodied to death. But as many Bondian touches as the Powers films include, they're more of a cultural goulash than direct Bond riffs. By now, three movies in, they maintain their own goofy vibe. There have been, of course, innumerable other spy spoofs over the years, but Johnny English is the first one in awhile that's genuinely, well, English: Britain-bred, with almost exclusively English talent. Some question the need for another Bond parody; I say seeing Rowan Atkinson in the Bond role is need enough.

Too bad, then, that Johnny English lacks the deadpan lunacy of the best British comedy. It has a curious reserve about it, going through the motions with a pleasant smile. Things start out promisingly, when clumsy administrator Johnny English is given his chance at secret agent glory. After every single other agent has been unceremoniously killed off, he is suddenly England's greatest, dubious hope.

From there, the film seems poised for success. Two of the screenwriters (Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) know the Bond formula firsthand, having written the two most recent proper Bond adventures; here they serve up appropriately inane versions of the requisite car chase, gadget love, and fortress penetration, but the movie is never quite inspired. Odd, because director Peter Howitt previously made Sliding Doors (1998), a sweetly nimble little Brit comedy. His new film meanders, not unlike some of the slower-paced Bond films.

A meandering pace -- or any number of shortcomings -- can be saved by good jokes, but Johnny English's humor lacks sharpness and nuance. It's the sort of comedy that's broad enough to play in as many foreign dubs as possible, and, indeed, it has become a worldwide hit. But, perhaps on the road to international success, any real verbal wit or inventive gags have been replaced by obvious isn't-he-stupid jokes and pratfalls.

Of course, Atkinson, a gifted physical comedian, is an expert at pratfalls. There is a sequence in the middle of the film where English mixes up his truth serum and muscle relaxants, and Atkinson's sublimely silly flopping and slurring had me laughing aloud. But everyone else functions as Atkinson's straight cast; actors as weirdly diverse as John Malkovich (as a villainous Frenchman) and pop star Natalie Imbruglia (as a female agent) are given little to do.

For all this, the Johnny English character is rather charming, and occasionally the film rises to Atkinson's level. At one point, there is even an echo of Woody Allen's maxim about success: at one point, two villains debate the need to do away with English; one dismisses him as an unthreatening incompetent. The other disagrees. "He may be a fool," he says, "but he's a fool who keeps showing up." For this and a few other stray moments, English's desire to play the hero, to transcend his stereotypical Englishness, is, in Atkinson's hands, sort of touching.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.