JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: David Kerr

Stars: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson, Olga Kurylenko, Jake Lacy, Charles Dance, Michael Gambon.

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It has been fifteen years since rubbery faced comic Rowan Atkinson (of Mr Bean and Blackadder fame) donned his licence to kill as bumbling and clueless secret agent Johnny English, a cross between James Bond, Maxwell Smart, Inspector Clouseau and Inspector Gadget.  The character was initially created for a series of credit card commercials, but proved popular enough to earn his own spin off feature film. Now Atkinson reprises the role in this third film in the series. Johnny English Strikes Again is also the most consistently amusing and strongest film in the series. The film spoofs the tropes of the Bond franchise with its gadgets, fast cars, exotic locations, beautiful but lethal ladies, and a villain hellbent of controlling the world.

A cyber-attack exposes the identity of all of Britain’s spies around the world, thus rendering Her Majesty’s Secret Service impotent. The Prime Minister (Emma Thompson, clearly having a bit of fun) suggests that the agency recall some retired agents who will be unknown. Amongst them is English, who is now working as a teacher at a private boarding school. Rather than adhere strictly to the curriculum English also trains his pupils in the covert arts of camouflage and sabotage and espionage. While waiting in a study, English inadvertently knobbles three veteran agents (played by Charles Dance, Michael Gambon and Edward Fox in uncredited cameos) and is by default chosen for this dangerous mission.

English slightly out of his depth in this new brave world of espionage which now relies on technology rather than guns and brute force. He is reunited with his technical weapons boffin Angus Bough (Ben Miller, making a welcome return after being absent from Johnny English Reborn in 2011). But can English master the new technology to unmask the mysterious hacker?

The trail to uncover the identity of the person behind the crippling hacks takes English and Bough to the south of France, back to London and eventually to a castle on the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland. Also involved in the hunt is seductive Russian agent Ophelia Bulletova (played by Olga Kurlenko, a former Bond girl from Quantum Of Solace, etc), whose loyalties are uncertain as she seems to both help and hinder English.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister calls in Jason Volta (Jake Lacy, from the US version of The Office, etc), a smarmy Silicon Valley billionaire and virtual reality expert who offers his service and advice, for a price of course.

The film has been written by William Davies, who has written the previous two films in the series, and he knows the character well and brings an internal consistency to the material. Apparently, Davies wrote the film, but left it to Atkinson to write the scenes featuring the more physical humour. However, Davies does tend to telegraph many of the gags, and the formulaic plot is a little predictable and this parody of the Bond Canon occasionally comes across as a little tired. This is the debut feature for David Kerr, a respected director of television comedies, and he keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, moving quickly from one clever set piece to the next.

The role of English perfectly suits Atkinson’s talents for over the top mugging and physical comedy, and there is plenty of opportunities here for him to execute some clever pratfalls and funny business. He brings a wonderful mix of smarmy arrogance and buffoonish antics to the role as the bumbling idiot who somehow manages to save the day in spite of his overconfident and misguided belief in his ability. A highlight here is a wonderful extended sequence in which English uses virtual reality to check out the criminal’s lair, and which sees him venture out onto the streets of London where he causes havoc and mayhem.

Thompson demonstrates great comic timing here and seems to be enjoying herself. Miller essentially plays straight man to Atkinson’s bumbling spy who continually overestimates his own abilities, and the pair create a wonderful dynamic. Lacy brings charm to his villainous Volta, but he lacks any real sense of menace. Kurylenko brings grace and a strong physical presence to her role, which seems to draw on the mystique of her Bond appearance.

If Johnny English Strikes Again is to be the final instalment in the series, then Atkinson ensures that it goes out on a high note. This is enjoyable and very funny stuff due mainly to Atkinson’s comic timing and silly antics and a vast improvement on the disappointing Johnny English Reborn.

★★★

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