Released: 20th September
Seen: 3rd October
Set several years after Johnny English Reborn, Johnny English Strikes Again follows the titular spy Johnny English (Played by Rowan Atkinson) as he is tasked with a brand new mission. When the identity of every secret agent in MI7 is exposed by a hacker that is turning life in Britain into absolute chaos, the only agent available is Johnny English… and maybe some other agents who aren’t dead or having a hip replacement, but they’re quickly dealt with early on in the film so who cares? Reunited with his assistant Bough (Played by Ben Miller), they are ordered by the Prime Minister (Played by Emma Thompson) to find the person who hacked Britain. On the way they’ll have to deal with, naturally, a Russian spy named Ophelia (Played by Olga Kurylenko) and a very stuck up American silicon valley millionaire named Jason Volta (Played by Jake Lacy). It’s a battle between the modern high tech world and good old fashioned British Intelligence… so, that’s going to go wonderfully.
Now it might not be a popular opinion, especially among critics, but I actually enjoyed the original Johnny English. It was a funny satire of the James Bond movies that came out a year after Die Another Day, so the time was perfect for a satirical take on the James Bond character by some of the greatest comic minds in Britain. That satire came about by taking an old character that Rowan Atkinson had played for a series of credit card company commercials and putting him on the big screen with a bigger budget and the visual flair that one might associate with a James Bond movie. It was a genuinely fun film, even though it was panned by critics, and I was so hoping that this third movie would ramp it up even more. With a brand new set of spy movies coming out recently to take on, the time seems perfect for a bumbling secret agent to poke fun at this genre again but sadly, all he did was lightly tap at the genre with a piece of damp cloth and called it a day.
In this movie’s credit, the character of Johnny is still as strangely charming as ever. Even when he completely screws everything up there is something about the way Rowan plays him that allows him to get away with it. He literally pushes an 80-year-old woman in a wheelchair out towards a busy street and somehow it’s not as horrifying as it should be, that’s a genuine talent. The problem is that, despite the genuine charm of the character, he is a one-joke character and that joke is “What if James Bond was played by your uncle who is infamous for shoving 13 crayons up his nose and only getting 12 of them out?”. It’s a great joke for one film, maybe even two, but there’s no way to make a joke that simple work for a third film if you don’t throw something new and interesting at it and there is nothing new or interesting thrown here. The best we have is that the big obstacle that Johnny must come across is new technology which was a joke that worked in 2010 but now? When literally everyone has a super computer in their pocket and we can do online shopping from our watches and binge watch a baking show from our refrigerators? “Man doesn’t understand how computer works” is an old joke that rings hollow and doesn’t work anymore, especially not in the context that’s given here. Oh, and you know how I mentioned that there was a Russian spy in this movie? Yeah, she has literally nothing to do with the hacking that’s the central focus of the plot. The obvious topical joke about a Russian hacker is ignored, or probably not even thought about. Sure, a joke about a Russian hacker would’ve been a very obvious joke but you know what else it would’ve been? A joke.
It feels like there were a lot of problems with the comedy here, something about the timing feels off. While there are some sequences that work really well (The VR scene is a genuine highlight, and they know this because they basically put ALL of it in the trailer), there are so many scenes that feel like they just told everyone to act awkwardly for 5 minutes and they’d craft a joke in the edit. You might get a laugh out of some of those moments, I can’t deny that Rowan Atkinson dancing to Darude Sandstorm is a delightfully silly image that get’s some initial giggles but after a while the joke wears thin and you just wonder how much footage they got of Rowan doing variations of his Mr Bean dances they got in order to create this one scene that isn’t even that well choreographed. It’s also full of telegraphed punchlines that ruin the element of surprise needed to make the jokes work. There are so many times when they may as well say “In 2 minutes, I’m going to make this go mild explosive go off when I really shouldn’t and cause myself great pain in the genital region”. This kind of joke can work sometimes, that VR scene I mentioned basically has the setup of “Here’s what you shouldn’t do” followed by Johnny doing exactly the thing he shouldn’t do and it works there because the payoff is genuinely amusing and exaggerated to the point of absurdity… most of the time though, it’s “Watch your head” followed by Johnny walking into something and banging his head which is… funny? I guess? If you’ve literally never seen a slapstick comedy routine before and this is the first time you’ve ever been exposed to the concept of someone being physically injured for the purposes of a visual gag, then sure it’ll be funny but unless you’re in a very specific group of people who have never seen any physical comedy before, it’s probably not going to work as well.
Speaking of tired jokes that I wish would just go away, can we maybe be done with the “Evil tech bro” archetype? It’s the modern day version of “Evil oil executive” and they’re so overdone that I just do not care anymore. There’s nothing interesting that can be done with it, or at least nothing interesting has been done with it in several years and it’s at the point where I just want it to either be used well or just don’t bother. They don’t even really do anything with him, he has a brief flirtation with the Prime Minister (Or, to be technical, she flirts with him) but then nothing. His phone has a more interesting personality than he does, and that’s not a good thing when you’re trying to convince me that he’s someone I should be interested in. I’m not, I genuinely forgot his name until I looked it up to write it in the opening paragraph of this review because he may as well be a mannequin with slightly nicer hair. Sure, the actor does an OK job with what he’s given, he has one of the few jokes that actually works, but for the most part he’s just there and that’s about it really.
The amount of missed opportunities in this film is staggering, beyond the previously mentioned “You have a Russian Spy and Hacking” thing, there’s an opening bit with three older spies who are removed from the story line quickly but they’re probably still alive, why aren’t they brought in as backup? The film opens with Johnny teaching a bunch of school children how to be good spies, why are they never used? Why is Johnny’s xenophobic attitudes towards the French never addressed properly, nor his treatment of women? This is a parody of Bond tropes without actually parodying them, it’s just recreating them in a way that’s just uninspired and boring. It’s almost like they already did this exact thing twice before and just ran out of jokes so they’re running on fumes at this point.
The one person who comes out of this movie on top is Emma Thompson as the Prime Minister, she is objectively the funniest person in the movie. She effectively get’s the role of the highly stressed leader who can see how incompetent Johnny actually is and calls him on it, but she’s also so stressed out that she doesn’t spot the actual problem when it’s staring her in the face. She’s genuinely hilarious in every scene she has, either through her line delivery or just how exasperated she is, she manages to create some of the most hilarious moment in the entire movie. I honestly would’ve enjoyed more scenes with her and Jason Volta because there was something interesting there that was lacking for the rest of the film. Maybe they should’ve given Emma a chance to run over the script and make it more interesting? I don’t know, at this point my desperation for something interesting is overtaking every other faculty.
I genuinely hate that I don’t like this movie because Rowan Atkinson is one of my favourite comedic actors in history, I grew up with Blackadder and Mr Bean and I think his one man show was one of the most brilliant performance pieces I’ve seen (I believe it’s just known as Rowan Atkinson Live, I highly recommend it if you can find it because it shows just how great Rowan is) so to say that this is easily his worst work depresses me more than I can explain. I wanted nothing more than to love this film, I wanted to be able to sing it’s praises and call it a comedic triumph but honestly? Just go rewatch the first one, it’s not only a better parody of Bond tropes but it’s a better film with better writing and better visuals to boot. This one really only has a few good performances and some mild chuckles going for it, the rest is stuff that we’ve seen done before and it was much funnier the last time we saw it. If you’ve never seen a Johnny English film before, then this one might work for you, but it just didn’t work for me and I hate that so so SO much.