Espionage is hardly the subject for a comedy. I have liked some of them, no question. The original Johnny English (2003), for example, is very funny. I even liked I Spy (2002). But when you do comic espionage, it’s likely that you’re doing zany farce or slapstick–not quality subgenres. The number of Hopscotch‘s (1980) are far outnumbered by the Agent Cody Banks‘s (2003). It’s because the best of espionage is subtlety, moral ambiguity, and darkness, which all go against the qualities required of a comedy (possibly). I like Cherry Garcia and I like falafel, but I wouldn’t put them together.
Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) has been de-knighted and dismissed from MI-7 after a major, public screw up in Mozambique. He spends some time training in Tibet when he’s called back to handle a situation. An ex-CIA agent (Richard Schiff) has uncovered a plot to kill the Chinese Premier (by virtue of being a part of the plot). So, Johnny’s got to deal with that with the help of the very young Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya) and Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike), the behavioral psychologist. The new top agent in MI-7 is Simon Ambrose (Dominic West) and the new Pegasus, Pamela (Gillian Anderson), is bringing a new, stereotypically feminine approach to the Secret Service.
Johnny is both dumber and wiser in Johnny English Reborn (2011) than he was in the earlier film, creating a very mixed bag of screw ups and victories. The wisdom does make the stupidity a little harder to take. It does tend to cut down on the slapstick and increase the amount of sheer silliness. We are not using the pun or a well-constructed punchline–perhaps because these are so typical of the actual Bond series–but rather of disarming the usual spy chase/fight/technology with “common sense” and then ruining it all with blank stupidity.
At this, Atkinson is well practiced from Mr. Bean (1990-95) to the first Johnny English. He’s good enough to carry the movie and I think Dominic West is strong enough to carry it the rest of the way. This is aided by the direction of Oliver Parker and writing of Hamish McColl (screenplay) and William Davies (story) in keeping the pair in frame or action as much as they can. At a cost…
The pace of the movie is very quick. Sometimes too quick. The action sequences for about two thirds of the show jump from point to point and from oddity to oddity with an effect of some very choppy work. It doesn’t really matter how funny the gags are if the stuff in between isn’t flowing regularly. It’s not bad enough to ruin the movie, but it is enough to keep it from being above average. On the other hand, the last twenty minutes are just great. So, let’s call it above average.
If they had put together a smoother story without four big roman numerals with three bullets underneath each, they would have been on their way to making something as good as the last one. It is the downside to sequels that the makers rely on a connection already made and slog out an outline and checklist. Surely if they find themselves doing this, somebody should say, “Perhaps, if we make it this way, it will look like a brainstorm.”
As I say, this is good enough to watch and enjoy, but not worth the current cost ($15) to go into your collection.