Director: Peter Howitt
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson
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If you had to pick a character likely to get their own trilogy of feature films, that bumbling dude from the Barclaycard adverts in the 1990s that nobody now remembers wouldn’t be your first pick. Nonetheless, over nine years after his first big screen outing, Johnny English is back once more for a third espionage adventure.
Rowan Atkinson, of course, reprises his role with the kind of physical athleticism and facial expressions that make him such a naturally funny performer. The question isn’t whether Atkinson has still got it, but whether the scripts can keep up with him, a question that saw the second of these movies struggle to raise much of a titter. After a break from the franchise, though, this second sequel finds a renewed comic spark, and when it catches, the result is surprisingly, pleasingly funny.
The plot is as unoriginal as it comes: with the UK under cyberattack, and all of its secret agents exposed or compromised, English is the one analogue man left in a digital age, a man so inept when it comes to modern technology that he can’t be tracked or hacked. But there‘s something topical about this whole premise that makes such a tired fish-out-of-water cliché oddly rather effective.
That stems from the choice of supporting characters. While patiently deadpan sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) is back in action, they’re now in the service of a Prime Minister who isn’t very popular and is somewhat out of her depth. Played with pointed wit by the always marvellous Emma Thompson, she may be an easy caricature, but she’s also convincingly in thrall to Jason Volta, a tech guru played with smarmy smarts by Jake Lacy. Thompson’s PM swoons over him and gladly hands him the digital keys to the country, so he can patch in through his mobile and take control.
These are broad strokes, but they’re also the smartest Johnny English’s plotting has ever been – damning with faint praise, perhaps, for a series of spoofs that has always prioritised slapstick stunts over scripts. Of course, there are plenty of those, with set pieces including the expected misses (a dance scene in a nightclub) as well as hits (English going undercover in a French restaurant).
But the wider context gives events an unexpected edge, not only because English has a legitimate role to play this time, but because he’s also the hero this country deserves. Suited up in medieval armour and walking blindly into a helicopter, he’s no more incompetent than the rest of them. That’s perhaps why a familiar gag involving a VR headset is the standout sequence here – a highly amusing scene that juxtaposes his gung-ho patriotic enthusiasm with the bumbling reality. The film’s cute introduction sees English as a school teacher in retirement, offering secret spy lessons to small children – an unexpectedly endearing moment where we see him in an environment that’s entirely in keeping with his abilities. That this is the man England relies upon to save it is bleakly, wonderfully fitting. Do we need a fourth Johnny English film? Not at all, but at least the trilogy can now quite while it’s just about ahead.
Johnny English Strikes Again is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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