‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ review: An analog spy in a digital world

Despite going for more absurd gags, David Kerr’s ‘Johnny English Strikes Again’ struggles to justify its existence in the modern world.

In one scene in Johnny English Strikes Again, the bumbling titular hero (Rowan Atkinson), donned with full medieval armor, trips on the top of a staircase and crashes all the way down the exit while everyone else in the room acts oblivious to what just happened. It’s a shared sentiment that I have for this sequel – the humor mostly went down as cheeky, inoffensive but ultimately forgettable.

Might it be because seven years seem like a long gap for the sequel of a somewhat tired franchise? Or could it be because, even the ‘spy parody’ sub-genre requires fresh ideas more so than just shallow slapstick and escapist destination? Recent films like Paul Feig’s Spy and Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, don’t necessarily have the dumbest characters to amuse you but it’s situational, bad-luck humor nevertheless brings the category to a higher standard of comedy.

Johnny English Strikes Again, on the other hand, relies on a less-intellectual, physical comedy that’s otherwise very accessible to younger audiences, courtesy of its exceptionally dumb and accident-prone British agent Johnny English. The Prime minister (Emma Thompson) plucks him out of retirement when a vicious cyber-attack compromises the identities of every current MI7 agent. The dimwit spy, eager to prove himself again, decides that the only way to capture an enemy who operates in a digital realm is to go analog-style. So he takes his old-fashioned tools and drives his vintage Aston Martin (it has no GPS, therefore no satellite can trace it!), along with his old trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), back into action. Along the way, the film also introduces James Bond’s leading lady Olga Kurylenko in an underwritten role of a double agent. One can’t help but think that the inclusion of such actress is just to make a subtle joke.

Rowan Atkinson stars as Johnny English in JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN, a Focus Features release.

Their wacky (mis)adventures lead them to France where a lot of shenanigans and blunders are played every five minutes or so – the resulting laughs, however, are more sporadic than intended. The bad ones that elicit groans involve clumsiness and self-humiliation, like when English flambés a saucepan of shrimp and serves them as charred remains. Or that scene where he disco dances under the influence of a stimulant. In those moments, Atkinson’s more popular persona, Mr. Bean, inevitably comes into mind. The latter is a funnier creation that works on an extreme level of comedy. This film, however, waters down the humor because he can only be inept whenever the situation calls for it.

Still, there are chuckle-worthy scenes, especially when English keeps forgetting his code name. Also easily standing out is a virtual reality gag, where he loses his bearings and wanders around London, assaulting random people with baguette in the process. Director David Kerr heavily relies on Atkinson’s froggy face and gurning mannerisms to sell the comedy. By now, the actor seems to be to old for the role but he remains to be a reliable screen presence, nevertheless.

But overall, Johnny English Strikes Again does a weak attempt to further boost the appeal of its titular character. This comeback is founded on uninventive arsenal of gags, more pitched towards kids than adults. It doesn’t go far beyond that which makes it underwhelming. It may have its funny moments but considering this is a three-quel already, I’m putting it up against a tougher standard.

One can hope that the film went on a different route – in the beginning of the film, the retired spy works as a geography professor and secretly teaches his students about the art of classic espionage. It’s an interesting mix of Kingsman and The School of Rock. That might have been a more entertaining storyline.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by David Kerr, ‘Johnny English Strikes Again‘ stars Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Ben Miller, Adam James, Emma Thompson, Jake Lacy, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Miranda Hennessy, Irena Tyshyna and David Mumeni. Run time: 89 minutes.

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