In these days of cross marketing, it is not unusual to see film characters appear in commercials for products that are inevitably placed in their features. But in an interesting reversal of that trend, Johnny English, the bumbling secret agent from a series of popular British credit card advertisements, has somehow managed to make his way to the silver screen for a feature length adventure.
When England’s best spy is killed in action and all of his replacements are assassinated at his funeral, it comes to lowly pencil pusher in the offices of England’s Secret Service Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) to foil a plot by the evil French businessman Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) to steal the Crown Jewels and have himself installed as King of England. Fortunately for England, English is joined by sexy INTERPOL agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia).
Though some may dismiss Johnny English as being an Austin Powers clone, they couldn’t be further from the truth. The Mike Myers series is built upon a foundation of affectionate spoofing of the spy film genre. Johnny English on the other hand, is more grounded in reality. English is more character than caricture, a bumbler who dreams of being a suave, sophisticated man of action.
Atkinson has the amazing ability to change expressions on his face without seemingly moving a muscle, going from a look of extreme confidence to disbelief in one comic moment. There are plenty of subtle jokes in the film too. English is employed by the government secret service organization MI-7, the unspoken implication is that they are “One Up” from James Bond’s MI-6.
Unlike the more recent comedies of American vintage, there is a refreshing lack of gross out humor in Johnny English. The sole exception being the short sequence where English infiltrates the bad guys’ stronghold through a sewage pipe with fairly predictable results. Unfortunately, it is the film’s scattered sense of humor and desperate attempt to be both smartly funny and rely on more base physical humor that keep it from ever truly finding a consistent tone. It’s only the force of Atkinson’s performance that keeps the film together and makes it entertaining.
One also has to wonder about John Malkovich’s inclusion in the cast. While he does deliver a creditable performance he brings nothing extra to the role beyond name recognition. Perhaps, like the rest of us, big name actors sometimes need a paycheck just to pay the rent.