“Johnny English Strikes Again,” but really, we'd rather he not. Can't Rowan Atkinson's bumbling parody of James Bond just leave well enough alone? This limp, lifeless, one-joke action comedy sequel, directed by David Kerr, comes seven years after 2011’s “Johnny English Reborn” and 15 years after the 2003 “Johnny English.” It manages to overstay its welcome, even at a scant 88 minutes, mostly because writer William Davies didn't bother to include anything other than “Johnny English is bad at spying.”
The elastic-faced Atkinson, best known as the wide-eyed Mr. Bean, returns to the character of Johnny English, who is so bad at spying, he might actually be good. Scratch that, he's a terrible spy, but he's got great people around him. He is useful, however, for creating a diversion, like setting a restaurant on fire, or tearing up the dance floor to Darude's “Sandstorm.” There's something to be said for low expectations, because when people underestimate him, Johnny English gets away with a lot. Unfortunately, there aren't expectations low enough to make “Johnny English Strikes Again” entertaining.
What's puzzling is that English seems perfectly competent at teaching young spies at the boarding school where he's been plying his trade of camouflage and stealth missions. But put him in the field and he's completely hapless, and barely competent at simply existing in the world: constantly running out of gas, yelling inappropriately, assaulting innocent, wheelchair-bound grannies.
Thank goodness he insists upon the assistance of Bough (Ben Miller), when he stumbles into an opportunity to undertake a mission for MI7. Once again, he's the only one available for the job, when a cyber attack compromises all the identities of Britain's secret agents. Bough, the ever-loyal assistant extraordinaire, gets the job done and never needs any credit, which is ideal for the strangely arrogant English.
Perhaps it's too tall an order for such a piffle of a comedy, but “Johnny English Strikes Again” is at odds with itself when it comes to its messaging. It cheerfully sends up the misogyny and old-school ways of the Bond franchise: the guns, gadgets and gas-guzzling Aston Martins, but ultimately, it's British tradition and culture that wins the day, as Johnny lumbers about in a creaky old suit of armor, spearing smartphones with swords in some sort of attempt at paying tribute to the good ol' days.
It's as if to say “the old gal's still got it,” a rebuke to the snarky tech bro Jason (Jake Lacy), who scoffs “what has happened to this country?” This film positions technology as the enemy, as a threat to civilization as we know it, though the blundering Johnny English isn't the best representative of making Britain great again. Or maybe putting this fool in the armor is the film's inadvertent way of arguing that maybe it's time to let the old ways die.
Does “Johnny English Strikes Again” want to be a cri de coeur for the bygone culture and way of life or does it want to poke fun at the stuffy, old-fashioned Bond tropes, to let the air out of those antiquated beliefs? One thing for certain, seeking clarity and insight from this fart joke of a movie is truly a fool's errand.
‘Johnny English Strikes Again'
Rated: PG, for some action violence, rude humor, language and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday in general release