Johnny English Reborn - Rowan Atkinson
Johnny English Reborn - Bumbling secret agent Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) can't figure out chair hydraulics but hopes to save the world © 2011 Universal Studios

Occasionally amusing but never terribly funny, this sequel to 2003’s Johnny English is more childishly silly than smart. Rowan Atkinson, who achieved international success as the unfortunate everyman Mr Bean and whose earlier British TV series Blackadder is a BBC comedy classic, stars as a second-rate secret agent with a problematic past.

Because he bungled his last mission so disastrously, English has spent the last six years in a Tibetan monastery. That’s where he has been learning valuable lessons including how to walk on hot coals and take a hard kick to the crotch.

Called back to service to deal with an exceptional case, he sees that a lot has changed since his self-exile. The fictional MI7 intelligence organization is now a division of Toshiba (the department’s slogan: “Spying…for you”). The agency’s head, codenamed Pegasus, is now a woman named Pamela Thornton (Gillian Anderson of The X-Files), and English’s new partner is the very rookie agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya).

Johnny English Reborn - Rosamund Pike
Johnny English Reborn – Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike) has her hands full as a psychologist assigned to Johnny English © 2011 Universal Studios

Concerned about whether English might still suffer psychological aftereffects from his colossal “balls up with a cherry on top,” as fellow agent Simon Ambrose (Dominic West) refers to the mishandled Mozambique affair, MI7 assigns blond behavioral psychologist Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike) to monitor him. The question doesn’t turn out to be hard to answer. Every time the word “Mozambique” is mentioned, English’s face spasms into twitching contortions.

The rest of the movie’s humor is similarly broad but surprisingly flat, because director Oliver Parker lets most of the physical gags play out with no real zip. That approach works best for an early chase scene in which English pursues a crazily fleeing enemy without breaking a sweat. In a parody of the breathless beginning of 007’s Casino Royale, English’s enemy tries escaping by using the reckless running-and-jumping discipline known as parkour. But English manages to head him off at every turn by doing simple things such as merely going through a door or using an elevator.

A scene that doesn’t fare as well is a high-speed wheelchair chase that should have been both funnier and more dangerously exciting. Two instances of mistaken identity that result in English energetically beating up elderly women feel stale, but may get laughs from viewers unfamiliar with the Austin Powers movies.

Johnny English Reborn - Rowan Atkinson
Johnny English Reborn – The improbable secret agent Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) who doesn’t know fear or danger © 2011 Universal Studios

Johnny English Reborn does get points for looks, with locations including London, the French Alps and Hong Kong. The architecture of a precarious mountaintop fortress is impressively Blofeld-worthy, and English’s voice-activated Rolls Royce is such a massive counterpoint to James Bond’s sleek sports cars that it’s a visual joke unto itself.

Trivia fans will appreciate that both Rosamund Pike and Atkinson himself have appeared in actual James Bond movies. Pike was Bond girl Miranda Frost in 2002’s Die Another Day, and Atkinson had a small role as the British consulate’s Nigel Small-Fawcett in 1983’s Never Say Never Again.

One strange flaw with Johnny English Reborn is that its supporting characters may be too well cast as spy-cinema archetypes for the film’s good. Director Parker has stated that he wanted to assemble the kind of team that could make an actual James Bond movie together if Daniel Craig joined their ranks. Unfortunately, this means Atkinson (and sometimes his bug-eyed sidekick) not only are the only ones acting ridiculous, but everyone else seems singularly humorless.

The filmmakers should have given this less than intoxicating concoction a lot more shaking and stirring.

[Rating: 2.5 stars]


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.