Johnny English (2003)

Director: Peter Howitt
Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, John Malkovich, Ben Miller, Tim Pigott-Smith, Kevin McNally
Music: Edward Shearmur
Title song: ‘A Man For All Seasons’, performed by Robbie Williams

Johnny English is a pleasant enough time killer with one or two laughs thrown in along the way. While the film was a massive hit when it was released it’s rather thin on plot and features a truly un-inspired ending, which prevent it from being one of the great spy-comedy films. The strength of the films is popular rubber-faced comedian Rowan Atkinson, who plays English. While English isn’t as successful as some of Atkinson’s other characters (Mr. Bean and Blackadder), he still displays enough of the ‘arrogant clown’ characteristics that his fans have come to love.

The film opens with ‘Agent One’, Johnny English clad in black, storming a well protected chateau. This mansion is obviously an enemy stronghold, and English wastes no time in taking care of the dogs, and disabling the guards. Once inside, he tracks down the extremely attractive villainess of the piece and seduces her.

Only this isn’t real life. This is a daydream. Johnny English isn’t ‘Agent One’. He a desk jockey preparing mission documents for the real ‘Agent One’ (Greg Wise). Among the documents that English supplies are the codes to open a submarine hatch. English insists that they are up to date, because he has checked them himself.

Later, MI7 receives an urgent communiqué. It reads: ‘To: MI7 All Depts. Urgent. Agent One Killed in Action in Biarritz. Submarine hatch failed to open.’

All of Britain’s top agents return for the funeral of ‘Agent One’. With this many agents gathered in one spot, security is of the utmost performance. The man in charge of their security is Johnny English and needless to say he fails. A bomb goes off during the service, and Britain’s ranks of top flight operatives are decimated in one fell swoop.

‘Pegasus’, the head of MI7, hears of a plot to steal the Crown Jewels. Unfortunately he has only one senior agent to call on. Yep, it’s English. English is given an assistant to train, Bough (Ben Miller). Naturally enough, Bough is more competent than the continually inept English, but as a junior he is not allowed to act on his own.

English and Bough are sent to protect the Crown Jewels. The Jewels have just been cleaned and restored and there is a major unveiling ceremony to be held at the Tower Of London. Among the dignitaries attending the unveiling are, naturally enough, The Queen, and Pascale Sauvage (John Malkovich). Sauvage is a hugely successful French businessman who has sponsored the restoration of the Jewels. He also happens to be a distant relation to The Queen, and in line for the throne of England (albeit well down on the list). Also at the ceremony is Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia). She claims to have worked on the restoration of the jewels but like the female lead in any spy film, she is not as she seems.

During the ceremony, as Sauvage is making a speech, the lights go out and the Jewels are stolen. Despite protestations from Pegasus, English is sure that Sauvage is behind the robbery. Not because he has any evidence, but because he is a xenophobe, and Sauvage happens to be French. And how the English hate the French. The remainder of the film concerns English’s and Bough’s attempts to find incriminating evidence from Sauvage and what he intends to do with the stolen Jewels.

An amusing set piece includes a car-chase scene with a difference. English’s tricked out midnight blue Aston Martin has been winched onto the back of a tow truck for a parking infringement. Rather than try to arrange for the release of the car, both English and Bough steal the truck. Bough drives the truck, while English sits in the cabin of the hanging Aston Martin and uses the weapons console to smooth the way. The biggest cheer occurs during the chase, when a speed camera snaps a picture of English and the dangling Aston. English fires a rocket from the tail of the car and it blows the camera box up. No camera, no photo, no fine!

English and Bough also undertake an aerial assault on Sauvage’s multi-storey office building. Both men parachute from a plane and land on the roof of the building. Then they abseil down the side and laser cut a hole in the window, and then enter the office. Well, something like that. It doesn’t go quite according to plan – but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As I mentioned earlier, the greatest weakness in the movie, is it’s ending. Without spoiling it, it is a great setup in Westminster Abbey – and it truly could have been a grand finale, but instead it gets silly and the resolution just seems to happen rather than being planned or scripted. This is the part of the movie, where we should be cheering for Johnny English; but instead it is all a bit of a yawn.

The cast is a mixed bag. Ben Miller is quite good as Bough, English’s suffering underling. He is a good foil for Aktinson, and at times you can genuinely feel his frustration at English’s incompetence. Natalie Imbruglia as Lorna Campbell, on the other hand, is rather ineffectual. This may not be her fault because she is given so little to do. The character of English already has a straight man in Bough, He doesn’t really need a straight woman as well. John Malkovich’s performance as Pascal Sauvage is very broad, verging on Pepé Le Pew. Initially his French accent is amusing but it soon grows very tiring. But he appears to be having a good time.

Just a quick word about the music: The title song by Robbie Williams is quite okay, in a poppy way (If you like Robbie, you’ll like the song. If you don’t like Robbie, it doesn’t matter what I say). The incidental music by Edward Shearmur is reasonable as well. Johnny English is obviously a parody on James Bond, and the music is in that vein, being a gentle parody of the Bond sound. Also peppered throughout the movie are a few ABBA songs. They are deliberately incongruous and are simply to show us how ‘uncool’ Johnny English really is.

That’s Johnny English. It could have been a great parody of the Bond series and all things ‘stiff upper lip British’. But the film falls flat. Any success and enjoyment comes completely from Rowan Atkinson who carries this film on his shoulders. If you are not a fan of Atkinson, stay away. There’ll be nothing here to interest you. If you are a fan of Atkinson’s other work, sure have a look see. You may even enjoy it more than I did. But as a spy comedy, believe me, there are better films out there for you to discover.

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