If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need any more of, it’s spoofs of spy movies. Here’s a partial list of them: Casino Royale, Spy Hard, Agent Cody Banks, Spy Kids 1 & 2, the three Austin Powers movies, The Master of Disguise, The Tuxedo, Spies Like Us and a number of others that I’m blanking on right now. Granted, some of these films I liked, and some of them I liked a lot. Some I have hated. My point, however, is that spy movies have been spoofed to death. But here comes Johnny English, spy spoof #1,384,209.
Rowan Atkinson, the brilliant physical comedian best known as “Mr. Bean,” plays the title role. There’s an old joke: What do you call the guy who graduates last in his class in med school? Doctor. Well, that joke describes English. He’s technically a spy in the British Secret Service, but he’s the most incompetent one and nobody understands how he got accepted in the first place. When an accident results in the death of every other member of the BSS, English is the only one left to investigate the theft of the Crown Jewels.
English is convinced that the thief is a Frenchman named Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich). The theory makes sense, as Sauvage funded the cleaning of the Crown Jewels and therefore had access to them. Sauvage also believes that the throne was stolen from his family centuries prior, thereby depriving him of ever having the chance to be King. With the help of a government agent named Lorna Campbell (pop singer Natalie Imbruglia), English sets out to prove Sauvage’s guilt.
Let’s get the simple criticism out of the way first. Johnny English - like practically every spy spoof before it – parodies all the staples of the James Bond series, from the pre-credit action sequence, to the high-tech gadgets, to the goofy hero’s inexplicable ability to land a major babe. Can we all agree that we’ve been there, done that?
It’s the other problem that makes Johnny English a deadly unfunny comedy. Every single joke in this movie is telegraphed so far in advance that you can figure out the punchlines long before they actually arrive. Here are some examples. English needs a car so he can pursue some bad guys who are driving a hearse. He sees a hot sports car being loaded onto a truck. What does he do? He steals the truck. After losing the hearse, he sees one in a cemetery and races over, gun in hand. Guess what? Wrong hearse – he’s just threatened a group of real mourners. Later, English plans to broadcast a DVD showing Sauvage outlining his evil scheme. Since we already know Sauvage has surveillance video of English acting like a fool in front of his bathroom mirror, which DVD do you think the spy has actually taken?
Here’s my least favorite. In order to be named King, Sauvage must have the ceremony performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since the real Archbishop obviously isn’t going to do this, Sauvage hires someone to impersonate him. English sees the imposter suiting up and notices the man has a tattoo right above his ass. Now, at this moment you absolutely know that English will eventually come across the real Archbishop and, believing he is an imposter, pull the man’s pants down in front of onlookers as “proof.” I sat waiting for this scene. Eventually the real Archbishop does make an appearance. English spends several loooooong minutes going on about how this is a phony Archbishop. I am waiting not-so-patiently for the punchline I know is coming. The scene drags on and on, way beyond the point of ever being funny. Finally, the inevitable occurs. English pulls the guy’s underpants down on live TV revealing a distinct lack of a tattoo. And you know what? It’s not funny because we saw it coming a mile away!
Rowan Atkinson is a gifted comedian, and I liked his other movie, Bean. Although that was by no means a great comedy, it made me laugh because the jokes were unexpected. I remember laughing hysterically at the moment when Mr. Bean sneezes on the original painting of “Whistler’s Mother,” then tries to wipe it off with a handkerchief. In doing so, he wipes the face right off, then gets a ball point pen and tries to draw on a new one. That’s clever comedy; it starts with a funny situation, then builds to more and more absurd extremes. It is also something that we don’t expect to happen.
In contrast, everything that happens in Johnny English is expected. This film is so predictable, desperate, and obvious that there’s barely a laugh to be had anywhere.
( 1/2 out of four)
Johnny English is rated PG for comic nudity, some crude humor and language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
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