Johnny English Reborn Dir. Oliver Parker

[Working Title Films; 2011]

Styles: spy spoof
Others: Johnny English, Austin Powers, Get Smart, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls

Johnny English Reborn. Reborn? The third word in the title refers to a Buddhist enlightenment of sorts undergone by the title character, Rowan Atkinson’s reliably inept MI7 super spy, after his retirement from international intrigue. Just as in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, another sequel starring a rubber-faced comedian playing below his abilities, English is first seen tucked away somewhere in China, serving out a self-imposed exile at an idyllic monastery because of some awful event that occurred in between the first movie and this one (in the second Ace Ventura movie, Jim Carrey accidentally dropped a raccoon off a cliff; here, English allows the assassination of a democratically elected African president). Is this a recurring theme in lowbrow comedies? Does it refer to some latent yearning that Atkinson and Carrey share, to actually retreat from fame (and by extension their awful movies) into some idealized monastic peace?

Sometimes it would be nice to think that guys like Atkinson are putting enough thought into their movies to imbue them with such hidden messages. But Atkinson has done another Johnny English movie (I haven’t seen the first) to make more money, plain and simple. If that seems too cynical, or if it seems, when you happen to watch Reborn, that Atkinson is on more than autopilot in some of his scenes, and that some of the gags are fairly funny, ask yourself whether this hugely successful and talented comedian really thought he needed to tie one end of a rope to a boulder and stick the other end up his ass to get a laugh. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that Atkinson is at an age and a level of wealth where he might feel free enough to wait for good scripts or to even pay good writers to cook them up for him?

Because though Johnny English Reborn is surprisingly crisp-looking and fast-paced for another addition to the tired, old spy spoof genre, it’s neither well-written nor well thought-out. Its plot involves a double-crossing agent out to kill the Chinese premier; it isn’t clear if this is for profit or because of insanity, but it doesn’t matter. Reborn falls victim to the same fatal flaw that killed Austin Powers, Get Smart, and (I’m assuming) the first Johnny English: it doesn’t acknowledge that the iconic franchise, James Bond, which always seems so ripe for spoofing, has been tongue-in-cheek all along. Sean Connery always played Bond with a knowing smirk, and every Bond since (excepting the granitic Daniel Craig) has only ramped up the irony. And even with Craig, the series has always, and in a big way, been about topping the ridiculous stunts and Bond-acrobatics that were established in the previous movie. To spoof Bond, rather than to pay homage, is to miss the point.

Unless the point is money. Johnny English Reborn will undoubtedly make it, at least in Britain. Although it raked in hundreds of millions on the Island, Americans didn’t respond very enthusiastically to the first English. I don’t know if the broad scat, malfunctioning gadgets, and wacky mannerisms that make up this sequel will catch on in the US, but the preview audience I saw Reborn with was loving it. So Rowan Atkinson, now in his mid-50s, can probably count on at least one more English to keep his piles of pounds from dwindling too low.

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