A comic actor of genius who raises silliness to an art form, the wonderfully expressive Atkinson makes excellent use of those devastating looks in the spy spoof "Johnny English," where he turns up as a James Bond type more likely to kill adversaries by accident than on purpose.
There have been Bond spoofs before, from Jackie Chan's dismal "Tuxedo" to a National Lampoon parody novelette called "Alligator," where villain Lacertus Alligator, the head of TOOTH (The Organization Organized to Hate), is described as having "teeth of steel, a head the size of a football, a crazed mind, and the destiny of England in his hands."
What "Johnny Eng-lish" has all to itself is Atkinson. The film, bathroom humor and all, was spe-cially crafted as a vehicle for a per-former who is a major star not only in his native Britain but around the world. Taking its time getting to this country, "English" has already opened as the highest-grossing film in numerous countries, accumulating more than $100 million in the process.
Atkinson came to be noticed over here for his work in the wickedly funny U.K. series "Black Adder" and for a hilarious cameo as the befuddled vicar in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Even the successful "Bean," though too silly for most adults, showed him to be a comedian with almost preternatural control over his physical and facial movements. Anything he does here, from vigorously brushing his teeth to getting his tie stuck in a sushi bar conveyor belt, is going to be funny.
Directed by Peter Howitt ("Sliding Doors") and scripted by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (who've written Bond movies "The World Is Not Enough" and "Die Another Day") and William Davies, "English" introduces its protagonist in a noticeably non-heroic mode.
Despite some quite vivid daydreams, English is a paper-pusher, the desk-bound junior agent in charge of procuring documents for the dashing folks who do the heavy lifting out in the field, someone who couldn't be suave if his life depended on it. And, suddenly, it does.
For the unexpected deaths of all of Britain's espionage professionals turns English into Agent One, abruptly thrust into the maelstrom of a dastardly plot to steal the crown jewels and destabilize the nation.
English is aided in his quest to be of service by his loyal assistant Bough (Ben Miller), appropriately confused by mystery woman Lorna Campbell (Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia) and completely flummoxed by the sinister Pascal Sauvage. Played by John Malkovich with a delightfully ridiculous French accent, Sauvage has built an empire out of privatized prisons and a conviction that "the word 'mistake' is not one that appears in my dictionary."
English, too, is not without his resources. He is a master of both a system of Bedouin sonic chanting and the techniques of the throat warblers of the Guatemala delta. At least that's what he says, though dropping bullets and having guns fall apart in his hands appear to be more his speed.
As for Atkinson's resources, what can you say about his mock steely looks, his fake suavity, his manufactured savoir-faire. He not only reminds you, as many of the great physical comedians do, of an enormous infant, he has the ability to make you feel like a child again as well. When one of the bad guys says, unexpected regret in his voice, "You know, Mr. English, I am going to miss you," he speaks for England, and the world.
MPAA rating: PG, for comic nudity, some crude humor and language.
Times guidelines: Bathroom jokes and a naked rear end.
Rowan Atkinson ... Johnny English
Natalie Imbruglia ... Lorna Campbell
Ben Miller ... Bough
John Malkovich ... Pascal Sauvage
Universal Pictures and StudioCanal present a Working Title production released by Universal Pictures. Director Peter Howitt. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam. Screenplay Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and William Davies. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Editor Robin Sales. Costumes Jill Taylor. Music Edward Shearmur. Production design Chris Seagers. Supervising art director John Frankish. Set decorator John Bush. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In general release.