Rowan Atkinson is a timeless comic legend that has earned the respect he receives. Whether it’s with his internationally-renown Chaplin tribute Mr. Bean, his numerous appearances as The Black Adder or his varied live shows, Atkinson throws his entire body into a comedic performance. He figures out every specific muscle he needs to make a bit work and uses them at just the precise moment to get a laugh. A technician in physical comedy, Atkinson dedicates himself to whatever character he’s given regardless of the project’s overall quality. Even if it’s something as ridiculous as a road trip with Wayne Knight in Rat Race or merely gift-wrapping for Alan Rickman in Love Actually, you want Rowan Atkinson you get Rowan Atkinson. So even if movie he’s in is rather trite and boring, it’s hard not to respect the commitment Atkinson has to his performance.
Johnny English Strikes Again is Atkinson’s third outing as the titular bumbling British spy out to save the world in spite of his stupidity. The movie wears its James Bond mockery proudly as it rips off its inciting incident directly from Skyfall: a cyber attack on MI7 leaks all the names of current secret agents online jeopardizing national security. With no agents in reserve, the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) orders to reinstate retired agent Johnny English (Atkinson) and his sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) in the hopes of finding the mastermind of the cyber attacks. On top of his incompetence, English must outwit a mysterious Russian woman (Olga Kurylenko) and a cocky Silicon Valley tech guru (Jake Lacy).
There’s no reason to get mad at Johnny English Strikes Again. At 88 minutes long, the movie’s tedium doesn’t overstay its welcome and none of the tired routines here bring up anger. Whatever gags and bits the movie brought to the table could be predicted from the first second of the scene. It’s the classic routine of saying or showing the ridiculous thing that won’t happen but happens anyway because of the shenanigans of the main character. That situation makes up 75% of the movie’s jokes and even for how short the movie is, it’s quite miraculous that writer William Davies (who wrote the first two movies) and director David Kerr (Inside No. 9) filled up almost the entire film with just one gag and other bits from the first movie. The rest is Atkinson’s trademark physical comedy that mostly misses but occasionally hits. There are a few moments that get genuine laughs, including an extended bit involving virtual reality, but the rest is very generic. Fortunately it’s British generic and not American generic, so not fart jokes or toilet humor which is a beloved relief. As routine as the movie is, at least it has some dignity not to sink to unbearable low-brow humor.
Against all the blandness of the movie, Atkinson tries. Like all of his performances he puts effort into being such a charming buffoon no matter what it requires. Atkinson takes all of the humiliation his character is put through in stride. He covers himself in body paint, dances to “Sandstorm” and beats a man with two pieces of French bread but the character of Johnny English is never annoying. Even as he constantly screws up and takes credit for things that happen by pure accident, Atkinson keeps that warm charm on his face and dives head-first into whatever mockery is in his way. That doesn’t mean the movie couldn’t have used some more scenes with Thompson who rises above every half-assed scene she’s in as the irascible Prime Minister. Kurylenko is now cashing in on her Bond association (she was the femme fatale in Quantum of Solace) for the second time and she should be missing the simpler days of running around with the aged Pierce Brosnan in The November Man as she has nothing to do in this. She’s not even given anything funny to do, just sit pretty and wait for Atkinson’s schtick to be finished. Lacy gets off even worse as such an obvious rip off of Samuel L. Jackson’s character from Kingsman: The Secret Service without any kind of charisma or intimidation. It’s fine if the focus is supposed to be on Atkinson but there has to be some form of amusing alternative when his gimmick gets old.
Perhaps Atkinson’s age should’ve alerted the filmmakers about how the movie might turn out. As short and harmless as it is, Johnny English Strikes Back is formulaic and uninspired. But even at the age of 63 Atkinson still clearly has the energy to do his work. He deserves a script that either really challenges him or is a more refined version of his physical craft, not a reheated serving of what he’s done before. You can only get so much mileage out of a movie that references Temple Run in its first three minutes.