If you know Rowan Atkinson, it’s likely from his collaborations with Richard Curtis, where he played a tongue-tied priest in Four Weddings and a Funeral and a meticulous jewelry salesman in Love Actually. He’s done much more than this, though, and I was a fan of this British comic dating back to the 1990s, when PBS brought his TV sitcom Blackadder to me, and I was able to see him as a snarky conniver whose cunning plans kept being undone by the idiots around him. Others came to him with his other TV show, Mr. Bean, whose mostly silent, good-natured title character allowed Atkinson to show off his rubber-faced mugging and his spindly slapstick genius. Then there was the film Johnny English in 2003, which I quite enjoyed for its brilliant idea of casting him as a British secret agent who thinks he’s James Bond but is more Inspector Clouseau.
Johnny English Strikes Again is the third movie featuring this character, and by now we know that when Johnny and his infinitely patient partner Agent Bough (Ben Miller) pose as waiters in a French restaurant, they’re going to set the place on fire, and when Johnny proclaims that his vintage Aston Martin has great gas mileage, the car’s going to end up stranded on the road. Johnny is stuck in place, and screenwriter William Davies (who has been with the series since the start) can’t think of any new notes or situations for him.
The plot begins with Johnny retired and living as a geography teacher in Lincolnshire when a foreign cyber-attack exposes all British secret agents in the field, forcing the government to call on him. To find the leak, he’ll have to track down the responsible party at a resort hotel in Cap d’Antibes, presumably because Atkinson wanted a vacation there. The mission brings him into contact with a Russian spy (Olga Kurylenko) and an American tech billionaire (Jake Lacy), neither of whom is particularly funny.
I laughed out loud twice during this movie, once involving an exploding pen and a group of elderly intelligence bosses (Charles Dance, Edward Fox, and Michael Gambon) and the other with Johnny improvising a revolting-sounding cocktail order, although he seems to like the taste of the drink. I suppose British Labourites will appreciate Emma Thompson’s performance as a dimwitted Theresa May-like prime minister.
For all this, Atkinson is now 63, and while his slapstick instincts are still there, he’s no longer as limber as before, as you can see in a scene when he takes to the dance floor after accidentally taking an energy pill. After Curtis’ artistic decline, Atkinson never found a collaborator who could tune into his peculiar wavelength. It’s a shame. As Lord Blackadder would say, this exquisitely gifted performer’s career path has been strewn with cowpats from the Devil’s own Satanic herd.
Johnny English Strikes Again
Starring Rowan Atkinson and Ben Miller. Directed by David Kerr. Written by William Davies. Rated PG.