I’ll confess to having a soft spot for the British comic Rowan Atkinson, and even for his spoof version of a spy “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Of course, the “Johnny English” films make one wonder if that soft spot isn’t on one’s head.
A gifted, bug-eyed clown at home with slapstick, much of Atkinson’s fame stems from his beloved Mr. Bean, though the more verbally inclined, like myself, cling to his deliciously mean-spirited and witty “Blackadder” as our point of connection.
Of course, you’ll never have put-downs as zingy as “He rides a horse rather less well than another horse would” at your disposal if you don’t have future “Four Weddings/Love, Actually” writer Richard Curtis writing them for you.
“English,” based on a character he created for some short, punchy and funny TV ads for a British bank, has proven the most durable Atkinson creation on the big screen, even though the films have been half-hearted Bond-spoofs at best.
Here’s the best sequence in “Johnny English Strikes Again.” He’s making his getaway from the supervillain, and the car nut English (like Atkinson himself) carjacks an econobox driver’s instruction car with a nearsighted little old lady behind the wheel.
With English’s usual blend of panache, clumsiness and dumb luck, he effects an escape, snatching her glasses off when she freaks out so that she can only do what he says with the steering wheel as he uses the instructor’s accelerator, brake pedal and the hand break to power slide and whip about England’s B-roads. It’s a funny bit, better in conception than execution, but it comes off.
Then there’s the gathering of MI7’s retired, off-the-books spies, needed when the nation’s security apparatus is hacked. Seeing Edward Fox (“The Day of the Jackal”), Michael Gambon (Dumbledore, kids) and the vulpine Charles Dance (“Labyrinth,” “Game of Thrones”) as debonair old men no longer “Licensed to Kill” is a single-scene delight.
It’s easier talking about the film’s most promising bits, because too little of the rest of it has anything particularly funny to offer.
English, teaching at a boarding school and going off-text to instruct the tween girls and boys in spy and commando craft (could have been the whole movie, maybe a better one) is summoned when Britain comes under cyber-attack. There’s nobody else, and he’s analog, old school, eschewing cell phones and newer tech for a ’70s vintage Aston Martin (he drives to work in a Triumph Dolomite Sprint) and old fashioned gadgets and seduction.
Because this Russian (Olga Kurylenko) is close to the supervillain, who just might be power mad tech tycoon Volta (Jake Lacy of “Obvious Child”). A few drinks and she will tell all. Right.
The supporting cast is crowned by the regal, Oscar-winning Emma Thompson as an ill-tempered, self-martyred prime minister, and Ben Miller as the sidekick/straight man to Atkinson’s Inspector Clouseau Clone.
If you remember your Peter Sellers “Pink Panther” you know that Clouseau’s sidekicks were always smarter than “the boss,” and funny as hell in their own right. Mr. Miller? They make his “Bough” smarter, and that’s it.
Shooting in the South of France (and faking the odd swank bar and posh hotel lounge in the studio), racing a 1979 Aston Martin Vantage against a plug-in BMW on those gorgeous hairpin turn coastal roads seems something of a waste when you haven’t splurged on a pricier villain or workshopped sharper gags than English getting a drink umbrella stuck in his nose into the William Davies (“Puss’N Boots”) script.
But oh, to be an eleven year old boy with a thing for cars and spy movies and slapstick.
MPAA Rating: PG for some action violence, rude humor, language and brief nudity
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Olga Kurylenko, Jake Lacy, Ben Miller
Credits:Directed by David Kerr, script by William Davies. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:28