The gentleman spy is a true British icon and one that is a staple in novels and films. Whilst Bond is the top of the tree there are a few lesser known spies wandering the halls of MI5 and amongst these is Johnny English. Based on a credit card advert from many years ago this starred Rowan Atkinson as a bubbling spy who gets himself constantly into trouble to the chagrin of his assistant Bough. The character was so popular that the adverts were expanded and the birth of the feature film came about.
After all of Britain’s top agents are assassinated, bubbling spy Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) is promoted to the top of the list by default and as a result is given an assignment of national security – guard the recently restored Crown Jewels (not the trouser type!).
Unfortunately, the Jewels are stolen from right under English’s nose and as a result Queen Elizabeth II abdicates. This leaves the path clear for a Machiavellian French business magnate Sauvage (John Malkovich) to claim the thrown for himself due to some technicality in his heritage.
With his reputation in tatters, Johnny English and his right-hand man Bough (Ben Miller), decide that Sauvage has an ulterior motive and that they are the men to find out what it is and to stop it.
With English and Bough hot on the trail of Sauvage, they soon discover that it’s not just the thrown that is under threat, but the entire United Kingdom. Also, who is the mysterious and beautiful Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia) who keeps crossing their path?
It’s unusual to base a film on an advert, but for the most part Johnny English works on a simply enjoyable level. The two screenwriters, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, are very well versed in the James Bond world of espionage as they penned The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day and this shows in Johnny English with nice little subtle touch mattered throughout. The film plays less like a spoof and more like a series of sketches strung together as English goes from one ridiculous mishap to another. Its also good to see that every top spy gets to drive an Aston Martin (well, sort of drive it anyway).
The key success of the film is Rowan Atkinson – no one else could have played English as Atkinson made the character his own in the adverts. Even though woefully incompetent and hell-bent on doing things in his own haphazard way, Atkinson still manages to be charming and funny. He is always at his bets when playing silly characters and whilst doing outlandish rubbery faced gestures.
Other performances range from okay to semi-ridiculous. Ben Miller is ever reliable as Bough, the long-suffering side-kick to English. Natalie Imbruglia, although exceptionally easy on the eye, cannot act and basically becomes the token love interest. However, even she manages to out-act John Malkovich (yes you read that right!). His performance is completely absurd, with an outrageous French accent, long hair he seems to be in some deranged pantomime.
The weakest aspect of the film is that many of the jokes are far too obvious and the punch lines can be seen coming from a long way off – a very long way off. Also the witty humour that peppers the film does tend to wan a little and resort to obvious toilet humour – it’s almost as if the writers ran out of witty stuff halfway through.
Having said that, Johnny English is entertaining enough to please most people and hopefully Rowan Atkinson will increase his film appearances as a result.
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