Johnny English

It takes pretty immense ineptitude to render a movie starring the comically spry Rowan Atkinson so spiritless, lifeless and laugh-less, but the one-joke Johnny English does just that.

Even when the bent comedy of the Austin Powers franchise misses, it at least does so after admirably trying something strange. Granted, Johnny is nowhere near as naughty as Austin and thus is aiming for a different, broader, perhaps more family-inclusive audience. But while each bumbling super-spy is a one-joke idea, Johnny has too few riotous supporting characters to surround him and even fewer moments of inspired lunacy.

Lifting a gag from, of all films, King Ralph, Johnny English opens with the assassination of England’s top secret agents and two of the film’s small handful of genuine laughs. Despite indirect responsibility for all their demises, the bumbling diplomat of the title (Atkinson) is assigned to investigate a plot to steal the country’s crown jewels.

With mistakes piling up, about the only thing Johnny gets right is the culprit’s identity — Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich … yes, Malkovich), a foppish Frenchman with a temper and a tendency to drop the “h” from the word “him.”

Somehow related to the royal family, Sauvage feels he was screwed out of a natural ascendance to the throne. There may be a good laugh at how a Frenchman is related to the British royal family, but Johnny English doesn’t even try to find it. Regardless, Sauvage’s plot is to force the Queen’s abdication, assume the throne and turn Brittania into a prison for the world’s scum.

Considering this 00-sendup is co-penned by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (scribes of two Bond films, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day), it would seem like they’d be able to at least craft some apt action thrills and even the insider-style laughs in which the Bond franchise frequently indulges. Given the almost certainly short-shrift budget, there is at least one reasonably conceived action scene involving a tow truck. But there’s no payoff, no momentum, no reason, really, for this movie to even really exist.

Even though he’s truly funny only in short bursts as the guttural, low-talking Mr. Bean, Atkinson gives Johnny English his typically admirable all, particularly in a gag where he confuses truth serum with muscle relaxant. But rather than ingratiating or endearing, Johnny’s bungling is endless and, worst of all, predictable.

In any other movie, the casting of one-hit wonder Natalie Imbruglia (best known for singing “Torn” and almost certain to stay that way after this) as Johnny’s love interest would be weird enough. But not in a movie with Malkovich mocking the country he now calls home with the accent of a snooty maitre’d and a Euro-trash mane that’s like a well styled, dirty dishrag.

Sticking his butt out and pouting at the British subjects he so vehemently despises, Malkovich’s insanely over-the-top performance is the only thing that’s really worth laughing at in “Johnny English.” Otherwise, to use the movie’s lingo, it’s a cock-up, not a crack-up.

An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish:

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