The question facing Johnny English in 2018 is: how successfully has the character evolved and managed to remain relevant in the twenty-odd years since it first emerged in Barclaycard adverts in the early nineties? A prototype of the character first emerged as a spokesman for the credit card years ago as a gentle pastiche of old spy (see James Bond) cliches, before morphing into a feature film character in 2003, at a time when it already felt a little dated. Fifteen years later he’s back for a third outing, so how have director David Kerr, writer William Davies and star Rowan Atkinson breathed new life into Her Majesty’s most inept spy?
Disappointingly, the trio doesn’t seem to have managed to refine anything particularly successfully. Johnny English Strikes Again treads a familiar path of fairly wearisome, out-of-date gags and never gives its leading man, a comic with a decent track record of hilarity, any real chance to show his chops.
Following a cyber attack on the UK Government’s spy database, English is yanked out bucolic retirement teaching children the finer points of spying in an English boarding school. Despatched to find the cyber-terrorist, mainly due to the fact that he apparently has no digital presence, Johnny English is reunited with his old sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) to traipse around the French Riviera clinking glasses with Russian spy Ophelia (ex Bond-girl Olga Kurylenko) along the way.
The most glaring problem here is that a character that was conceived as a one-gag entity with a thirty-second lifespan, doesn’t seem to have grown since graduating from commercials to movies. Worse still, the gags that this character revolves around, don’t particularly have a place anymore. Riffing on the old-school, safari suit-wearing, quipping, gadget-wielding Bond is great when that Bond still exists; but for any viewer under the age of eighteen, that character is now a manic-depressive alcoholic psychopath with enormous muscles. Johnny English harks back to a version of the globetrotting spy that doesn’t exist and hasn’t done so for over a dozen years. Consequently, the character of Johnny English feels a dozen-or-so years out of date.
With Emma Thompson cast as a harrassed Prime Minister, there’s an opportunity to play on the idea of a spy working for the decrepit United Kingdom shorn of its prestige and now flailing around trying to find its place in a post-Brexit world. That never happens. It’s more of the same exploding sweets and mix-ups with stimulant pills. What seemed hilarious as a means of flogging manageable debt in the post-Thatcher years feels like embarrassing throwback as we approach 2020; which is oddly poetic, I suppose.
Chris Banks | [rating=2]
Action, Comedy | UK, 2018 | PG | 5th October 2018 (UK) | Universal Pictures | Dir.David Kerr | Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Jack Lacy, Ben Miller
Chris has also created a video version of his review, check it out…