Two Good Scenes

'Johnny English' is not very funny, but international audiences are eating it up

We forget sometimes that there's a great big world out there. Case in point: Johnny English Reborn, the sequel to a spy spoof released in 2003.

Why in the name of Ian Fleming would Rowan Atkinson do this again? Oh, because it was popular in a lot of places not named the United States of America.

Globally, Atkinson has enjoyed one of the longest careers of any active British comedian, even if it's not one of the best or most-creative. He's been a fixture for more than 30 years now on television and in movies, thanks to his early work on BBC, his four Blackadder series in the 1980s, and his two film characters, Mr. Bean and Johnny English. While his work has been relatively ignored in the United States, he's a big deal everywhere else, and Johnny English Reborn is already in the black after a few weeks in theaters around the world. Anything the movie makes at this point is gravy. Unfunny, lukewarm British gravy.

Well, that isn't entirely true: There are two funny scenes in Johnny English Reborn, but unfortunately for the film, they play out almost back-to-back. Before and after the movie spikes, there are about 45 and 30 dull minutes, respectively—and this is still an improvement over the first film.

English went off the grid after the events of his last adventure. There was trouble down in Mozambique five years earlier; this trouble is alluded to time and again, and it holds a key to unlocking English's current mystery. The blundering secret agent has been training with monks in Asia, and upon his return, he finds that things at MI7 have changed dramatically. For instance, the outfit is now called Toshiba British Intelligence, and according to his new boss, Pegasus (Gillian Anderson), the "main weapon of MI7 is diplomacy." It would have been interesting to see a more politically correct, corporately underwritten intelligence agency; alas, those two brief examples are all the movie offers on that front.

English is handed his next mission: tracking down a secret weapon of unknown origin that an international band of terrorists plans to use to assassinate the premier of China. The terrorists, incidentally, all have ties to the worldwide intelligence community. Oh, the intrigue. Helping this Clouseau incarnate on his mission are Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) and a behavioral scientist/love interest (Rosamund Pike) who believes English is on the right track even if ... uh ... there's no train in the station.

Of course, at every turn, English makes poor choices or bungles his quest, and it's all supposed to be organically funny. Supposing the audience has no idea that those are the rules of a Johnny English movie, maybe these hijinks get a few chuckles along the way. But the only genuinely entertaining moments have to do with a low-flying helicopter and a pneumatic office chair.

The chair bit shouldn't work at all; it's literally Johnny English being ignorant about how to control a chair going up or down, but for the only time in this franchise, Atkinson undersells his expressions to great effect. For a bit that would have been stale by the end of Charlie Chaplin's career, it actually makes an impact. Without revealing too much about the helicopter scene, it involves the moron of MI7 figuring the best way to find his destination with no onboard navigation equipment is to follow road signs.

The question is: Are these two scenes accidents, or indicators that the filmmakers were too lazy to go for yet more amusing scenes? Now there's an international mystery a bumbling superspy should tackle.

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