If you’re a North American moviegoer, you’re probably wondering why anyone would bother to make a sequel to that sadly unfunny 2003 spy spoof Johnny English: didn’t it totally flop at the box office? In the U.S. and Canada, it certainly did, taking in only $28 million, not even earning back even its modest budget of $40 million. But ho! Worldwide, it raked in $132.5 million. Rowan Atkinson is a huge draw outside North America thanks to Mr. Bean, the TV show turned movie: 1997’s Bean made more than a quarter of a billion dollars (unadjusted), most of it outside the U.S. and Canada. Its sequel, 2007’s Mr. Bean’s Holiday, didn’t do quite as well, but still, $229 million is nothing to sneeze at.
The world loves Rowan Atkinson in goofball mode. Deal with it.
Johnny English Reborn may very well flop, then, when it opens in North America next week. But ironically, it won’t deserve it. Shockingly, this is the rare sequel that improves on the original. Granted, that wasn’t hard, in this case, but neither is saying this damning with faint praise. I laughed out loud more than once during this very silly yet often very clever flick. It has no grand ambitions beyond sending up the many hoary conventions of spy movies and letting Atkinson (Love Actually, The Lion King) throw rubbery mugs at us once in a while, but it limits the latter and runs with the former in surprisingly nimble form. And it’s awfully cheery about it along the way. This is no great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hugely enjoyable without requiring that you shut your brain off.
English — Johnny English — had been kicked out of MI7 — *snort* — after the Something Bad that happened in Mozambique, but now he’s back, for reasons not worth going in to, except that they allow for a sequence set at a Tibetan monastery, where English has been training and studying à la Bruce Wayne’s Dark Knight. (Tweaking Christopher Nolan will come around again late in the film, with a snowbound setpiece hinting at Inception’s finale.) There’s a plot to kill the Chinese premier that only English can stop, or something. Oh, and there’s also a “vole” in MI7 at the same time who’s working with the bad guys. None of that really matters. What matters is that the script — by William Davies (How to Train Your Dragon, Flushed Away) and Hamish McColl — invents kick-to-the-crotch jokes that are actually funny, product placement that actually works as satire, a funny foot chase that pits a parkour-using bad guy against English’s smart stroll through their urban obstacle course, a hilarious spin on the espionage convention of the secret meeting in the men’s room, and one of the most outrageous and most amusing uses ever of a helicopter in an action movie. That’s not an exhaustive list of all the crafty stuff here.
And then there’s the cast. Everyone is playing straight man to Atkinson, but you can sense the grin they’re all biting their lips to keep in. Gillian Anderson (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, The X-Files: I Want to Believe) as English’s M is a hoot. Dominic West (300, The Forgotten) as the suave and sophisticated 007 type English can never measure up to is practically Harvey Korman-esque, looking at if he’s about to bust out laughing at Atkinson’s antics throughout, or perhaps just having fun playing James Bond. Rosamund Pike (An Education, Pride & Prejudice) as the MI7 psychologist who is “fascinated… clinically” by the bungling, bumbling English is adorably droll.
Perhaps it’s just the contrast with the hugely disappointing first film that predisposes me so easily to the new one: I am a big fan of Atkinson, though more of his sly and witty Blackadder than his silent-comedy Bean. There’s enough that feels more like the former than the latter to have kept me amused here.