Thursday, 12 January 2012

Film Review: Johnny English Reborn

After a serious transgression in Mozambique former MI7 agent Johnny English (Atkinson) is stripped of his knighthood and booted out the service, taking refuge in a Tibetan monastery. When British intelligence (now sponsored by Toshiba) gets wind of a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier, the source won't talk to anyone but English. Consequently head spy 'Pegasus' (Anderson) reluctantly pulls the blundering agent out of exile, sending English on a mission which soon unearths a conspiracy involving interlocking keys, mind-control drugs and rogue elements in the CIA, KGB and MI7 itself. Cue a series of monumental mishaps, inadvertent triumphs and general farcical ongoings as Mr Bean meets James Bond.

Was this sequel really needed? Probably not, although after the reasonably effusive and somewhat charming original it was never really in doubt. Despite being incredibly formulaic to the point where you could see the jokes a mile off, the first effort actually did quite well, pulling in $160million worldwide. The problem with Johnny English Reborn however is that it hasn't really moved on from those times, in fact regressing into something far more trite than before. And, like with most sequels, this is far inferior to the original which spawned it. Yet there's no reason to suggest it won't appeal to similar numbers of undiscerning Anglophiles.

This is your classic SNAFU (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up) scenario. But what's surprising here is that the plot takes a far more serious tone than in the first where John Malkovich tried to usurp the throne and turn Britain into a giant Alcatraz. In Reborn something far more austere is at stake in the assassination of the Chinese premier, although the motive for this remains unclear throughout. Allusions to real world black-ops projects such as MK-ULTRA and winks to the Manchurian Candidate scenario ground this more than it should have. While there's never any doubt that this is a comedy an enduring stiffness surrounding the subject matter permeates proceedings. This serves to diffuse Atkinson's buffoonery in many ways, whilst simultaneously managing to make the plot far more incredulous than it already is.

When the gags do come you will find them largely prosaic. From a chase sequence involving an electric wheelchair to a running joke of mistaken identity and granny bashing which is already overplayed the first time round, there is a lacking of freshness. In fact the funniest moment can be found in the film's trailer as English fails to get to grips with his hydraulic office chair. Further, there are logic loops abound. In one sequence for example English picks up his car from a London sink estate only to arrive in Switzerland in what the film eschews as a mere couple of hours later. Now I've seen some fantastical spy cars in movies before, but instantaneous transportation across Europe seems a bit much. Admittedly it would be unfair to blame the film's shortcomings on Atkinson, a man whose comic timing and physical comedy a proven quality over the years. Moreover Reborn's problems stem from a dull structure and horrible pacing, factors which serve to inhibit Atkinson's talents.

The rest of Reborn's characters don't seem to fit in much either. Suave super spy Ambrose (West), there to make English look even more ridiculous, remains seldom effective at his task while sidekick agent Tucker (Kaluuya) borderlines on believability. Likewise Rosamund Pike, who played a love interest in similar Bond parody Die Another Day (ok, not a parody, but it may as well have been), is uneasy at best in this one. The only character that is truly spot on is that of the British Prime Minister (Moore), a David Cameron figure who displays the same qualities of a charismaless, ductile Eton boy with a floppy haircut like something out a nineties boy band.

Above all this is not a particularly ambitious film, displaying no desire to improve upon its predecessor. As such Johnny English Reborn feels lazy. Perhaps it's time to live and let die on this franchise. Certainly it would be mission impossible to try and resuscitate it for a third outing.