Movie review: 'Johnny English'

2 stars (out of 4)

Spy spoof "Johnny English" is an old-fashioned comedy. And in this case, "old-fashioned" means tired, out of date and so abominably blah that you'll fall asleep in your popcorn.

Brit comedy legend Rowan Atkinson plays a clueless international operative, agent English, who is assigned with his sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) to a security detail for the unveiling of the recently restored Crown Jewels.

Entrepreneurial prison builder Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, in a thick, flaky French accent) has other plans for the national treasures, however, and also plots to take the British throne through creative means and expand his prison empire.

But none of this is really important. "Johnny English" simply serves as a framework to send up the spy genre, a comedic subject so over-farmed by the "Austin Powers" trilogy, James Coburn's "Flint" movies and "Agent Cody Banks" that the joke fields may now be fallow. "Johnny English" is not as clever as those films, and in fact is more in the vein of the Bill Murray bomb "The Man Who Knew Too Little." Both movie posters even feature the stars holding their hands in mock-gun postures.

English might as well use his hands, though, as his gun keeps falling apart or malfunctioning -- a gag that wears paper-thin in the first half-hour. Atkinson's kinetic, awkward acrobatics elicit a few laughs, especially when he stages a fight against a nonexistent assailant to cover his bumbling.

And there is plenty of bumbling, as English and Bough spend equal time chasing bad guys and their own tails, with English stopping to get demoted, flirt with love interest (and real-life pop songstress) Natalie Imbruglia and climb up an enemy castle's sewer pipes -- just as they're about to flush.

"Johnny English" provides everything you might expect from the spy genre, including gadgets that get misused, sleek cars and curvy women. It's just that none of it really holds together. That's unfortunate, since Atkinson, best known for his characters Mr. Bean and Capt. Blackadder on British TV, is a powerhouse physical comedian. His innocent everyman Mr. Bean, the more physical of the two personas, managed to coax laughter out of the most ordinary experiences, from falling asleep in church to simple flossing. Blackadder, an aristocratic scoundrel, was immersed in the black comedy of cruelty and political satire. The jokes weren't always fresh, but they were furious and unpredictable.

"Johnny English" has just enough banana-peel comedy to allow Atkinson to play, but director Peter Howitt ("Sliding Doors") telegraphs each punch line, setting up jokes so far in advance that we're reminded of exactly how much humor depends on the element of surprise and whiplash character reaction.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies wrote "English" as if James Bond were a "Three's Company" cast member, so they can certainly shoulder some of the blame. Purvis and Wade penned the last two Bond films -- a franchise showing fatigue -- and Davies has produced a string track record of B-movies since 1988's "Twins."

Although "English" has been a hit in Europe, American audiences might not be as forgiving, as Atkinson doesn't have the same star power on this side of the Atlantic.

His big-budget reworking of "Bean" (1997) into a Hollywood film was met with indifference; his most recognizable exposure since was as a narcoleptic Italian in "Rat Race" (2001) and as a menacingly goofy theme-park owner in "Scooby-Doo" (2002).

It's a pity, given Atkinson's broad range of talents, that "Johnny English" doesn't give the comedian more room to breathe and shine. But until he finds the right director and the right project, we can only guess at his big-screen potential, and catch glimpses of it on the video rental shelf with "Mr. Bean" and "Black Adder."

"Johnny English"
Directed by Peter Howitt; screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, William Davies; photographed by Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; production design by Chris Seagers; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, July 18. Running time: 1:28. MPAA rating: PG (comic nudity, some crude humor and language).
Johnny English -- Rowan Atkinson
Lorna Campbell -- Natalie Imbruglia
Pascal Sauvage -- John Malkovich
Bough -- Ben Miller

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