Dir: David Kerr; Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy, Pippa Bennett-Warner. Cert PG, 89 mins
“Make sure I don’t set eyes on that imbecile again,” one senior British politician grumbles about the hapless British spy/geography teacher from Lincolnshire, played again by Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English Strikes Again. It’s a sentiment echoed by many others.
Johnny English has the same effect on critics today that Norman Wisdom comedies did a generation ago. Wisdom was called an “ignorant and offensive nuisance”, “nauseating” and “repulsive.” Atkinson’s creation induces similar suspicion.
However, the latest instalment, coming seven years after Johnny English Reborn, turns out to be a perfectly serviceable spy spoof. Its challenge, which it generally rises to, is telling a story about such a naff and hopeless character without seeming entirely inept itself.
William Davies’ screenplay may not be profound or even original but in its own comic way, it captures the despairing humour and mood of resignation in a post-Brexit-referendum Britain, in which everybody – politicians and “MI7” agents alike – is making such a muck of things.
The Theresa May-like British Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) is presiding over a country that is falling apart. That is why she is so receptive when a very smarmy Silicon Valley billionaire, Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), presents himself as a potential ally and saviour. He, though, is like a younger, better-looking version of Blofeld in the Bond movies. We know instantly that he is not to be trusted.
Johnny English is only brought out of retirement because there is nobody else. MI7 is under cyberattack. All the other spies are either dead, or having hip operations, or recovering from prostate surgery. One of his main qualifications for the job in hand is that he is so out of sync with the digital world. He doesn’t have a smartphone or know how to use a laptop.
That means he can’t be snooped on or hacked. As we are reminded again and again, he is a spy from the analogue era. He has a faithful attachment to faxes and floppy disks.
The plotting is very flimsy. Johnny and his sidekick Bough (played in wonderfully dry and phlegmatic fashion by Ben Miller) are dispatched to the south of France in search of the hacker who has paralysed the British government and compromised its spy network.
Rowan Atkinson’s gurning and grimacing can be a little off-putting but the best routines here have a hint of Chaplin or Jacques Tati about them. In one prolonged skit, we see Johnny and Bough disguised as waiters at a very chic French restaurant. Atkinson has to shell a lobster, a task he performs with monumental incompetence.
He is even better in a scene in which he puts on a VR headset and blunders out into the London streets, convinced he is playing a violent video game. Tour guides, shoppers in a bookshop and customers in a cafe are randomly assaulted as he runs amok.
There is a cleverly choreographed car chase in which he is in the driving instructor’s seat, using the spare set of foot pedals as a myopic old lady holds the wheel. We see him in a kilt, in medieval armour and wearing a very bizarre magnetic metal frog suit that enables him to walk up walls.
Some of the sketches are pretty feeble – Atkinson’s pill-powered John Travolta-style, all-night-disco routine makes you want to avert your gaze in embarrassment. His badinage with Russian secret agent Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko) is very flat.
Throughout Johnny English Strikes Again, we have the sense we are being served up a series of comedy sketches from an old sitcom strung together rather than a coherent feature-length narrative. The filmmakers are following a familiar formula and are shamelessly trading not just on nostalgia for the previous films but for a lost era when kids still ate Curly Wurlies and sherbet dips and when spies made their calls from public phone boxes.
Fans of Atkinson and of the Johnny English franchise should be happy enough with the new adventure but even they may wonder if the filmmakers could have done just a little more to bring Johnny English into the modern age.
Johnny English Strikes Again is released in UK cinemas 5 October