Rowan Atkinson’s primary strength as a comedian lies in his ability to turn a seemingly monotonous situation into comedy gold. Like Charlie Chaplin, he’s able to string physical jokes together, slowly upping the ante until every comedic avenue has been exhausted. That skill set requires a special kind of movie though, and Johnny English Reborn is definitely not it. There’s simply too much plot to warrant slow-developing slapstick, and too much silliness to ever give the plot real meaning. It exists entirely in some awful, middle of the road gray area where both jokes and action suffocate in equal measure.
Most great movies blur the lines between genres--good comedies have a bit of heart, and all the best dramas have some levity. Audiences are willing to leave the gun and take the cannoli, but Johnny English Reborn can’t even figure out its main character’s personality let alone proper changes in tone. We’re given a lead who’s both a loyal and honest oaf and the type of guy who would drop a cat out of a window and say nothing. It’s not surprising at one point we’re asked to laugh at his difficulty in putting on pants after he’s shot.
Before that flesh wound, we’re introduced to Johnny English (Atkinson), a disgraced MI-7 agent who’s left fieldwork to get kicked in the balls by monks. It’s all supposed to help him find his center, but he’d much rather be back at his old job. The chance comes after a CIA Agent uncovers information about an assassination plot but will only speak to Johnny English. Our hero flies down to see him alongside new partner Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), but the meet and greet goes south after the contact is murdered by an old woman and a young accomplice. The sniper’s bullet leads to an extended chase sequence that, despite some great moments, fails miserably.
The criminal on the run is an athletic, twenty-something with Ninja-like moves. He climbs fences and jumps between buildings. Johnny English, on the other hand, is a forty-something with limited mobility. He outsmarts his adversary by using the terrain to make up for his physical limitations. At one point, the bad guy runs up a wall, and English sucks in his gut and slides around the side. The whole pursuit is very cleverly done, except for the fact that great pains have already been taken to make it clear our main character is an idiot and both men have guns and numerous opportunities to shoot each other. As a result, what should be a wonderful bit of physical comedy is a nonsensical and confusing waste of time.
Johnny English Reborn is littered with moments like the one above. It’s willing to be any genre and give its main character whatever skills to make a scene work. After the non-shootout, English and Tucker head back to Britain to return a key recovered from the deceased CIA Agent. They’re followed by the assassins, and naturally, the key is stolen, leading to an Austin Powers rip-off at the home of MI-7 headwoman Pegasus (Gillian Anderson). She’s none too pleased about her mother getting punched in the face, but she still lets English out in the field in an attempt to recover the stolen property. The last act takes what feels like an hour and is beset by a complete lack of common sense.
Spoofs, by their very nature, are supposed to be a certain kind of dumb. By utilizing incompetence characters and stupid premises, they ideally expose the inherently humorous elements of the genre they’re parodying, but both the humor and the story arc here are just plain dumb. Men get punched in the balls. They accidentally take cough drops that change the pitch in their voices. People fall down. Silly faces are made. It’s all been tried before, and it’ll all be tried again. I suppose I could even get passed all that if the characters at least behaved logically. They don’t. Both lead and supporting players act without motivation and logic. They double cross each other when it’s convenient and change courses of action to get people out of trouble. At one point, the film actually asks us to be okay with the idea of someone seeing a good friend in a foreign country and then forgetting it happened until under hypnosis. No head injury, no trauma, just lazy writing.
As a character, Johnny English is below average at best. He has no likability and even less consistency. As a film, Johnny English is a borderline disaster. Its moments of original humor are few and far between, and when they do come, they’re often at annoying times that slow down the pacing. Rowan Atkinson wasn’t right for this role the first time around, and he’s perhaps even more wrong here. Don’t take it as a shot against him though. I’m not sure anyone could have brought order to this mess.