It’s been three months since the first trailer for “Johnny English Reborn” debuted online, and we’ve all managed to continue on with our lives since then, suppressing the memory like a national trauma we wished would go away. Although we’d had eight long years to prepare for the character’s return, the western world had perhaps grown complacent that the buffoonish pratfallery of leading man Rowan Atkinson would ever again threaten to engulf our collective consciousness. No such luck: much in the way unexpectedly chucking a hastily-bandaged assault victim into a hot bath is a bad idea, the second tease of the venerably dumb Johnny English franchise has cropped up online, reopening old wounds we hoped would stay healed forever.
There’s a case to be made for James Bond parodies, a sub-genre unto themselves that have existed almost as long as the character itself has, undergoing rejuvenation in the years since blonde bruiser Daniel Craig took over the reins to the franchise. The very title of “Johnny English Reborn” film imples a resurrection of some description, or at least a response to the emotional brooding and Dan Bradley fisticuffs of “Casino Royale”. If the execution of this second trailer is anything to go by, though, the tone of the film is more in keeping with warnings about the rapture. Although Atkinson assaults an elderly lady in this trailer with what must have been intended to be hilarious consequences, he’s also figuratively taking a pewter-plated boot to our collective crotches at the same time with the film’s fundamental laziness and lack of ambition. So much for that dry British humor.
Aside from repeating the gags we were treated to the first time around – a bizarre “Batman Begins”-inflected prologue, English haplessly lowering his chair at an important meeting of fictional MI7 – there’s little else going on here. English mistakenly confuses one bespectacled Chinese man for another (the hilarity!), English wanders around in a body bag before smacking into a wall (an apt metaphor for the film itself) and English squares off against a gun-toting grandma who packs a gatling gun in her golf bag. Going out on a limb here, but there’ll probably be some fart gags thrown into the end product for good measure. The plot, such as it is, apparently revolves around English getting back in the saddle after years spent in a remote and indeterminate Asian locale after a botched mission in Mozambique by attempting to foil an attempt on the Chinese premier’s life.
The cultural half-life of this Johnny English character is troubling. Beginning as a series of credit-card shilling commercials for Barclaycard throughout the 1990s, Atkinson parlayed the success of that character – then dubbed Richard Latham – into a ninety-minute fiction film featuring a presumably cash-strapped John Malkovich as the villain. 2003’s “Johnny English”, when it fell into our laps like a malicious school bully dropping a salamander over our shoulder, was already derivative of the countless number of spy parodies that made “Spy Hard” look like “Dr. Strangelove” by comparison. Unlike the first film though – which, somewhat bizarrely, was scripted by Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – the screenplay is by Hamish McColl, who is prone to talking about English as if he were a classic Falstaffian figure with a touch of emotional anguish. Director Oliver Parker who, aside from apparently harbouring the fanatical desire to devalue Oscar Wilde’s entire back catalogue (2009’s deliriously unsexy “Dorian Gray” the worst example) specializes in disposable pap like the “St. Trinian’s” movies, so something this lightweight is right up his alley. Actors like former Bond girl Rosamund Pike, Dominic West (a very long way from “The Wire”) and Gillian Anderson have all surrended their heads for the chopping block to support the film and their bank accounts.
For Atkinson, a talented performer but never a masterful chameleonic actor like fellow countryman Peter Sellers or a grand doyen of British comedy like John Cleese, that Johnny English and Mr. Bean (he of “Bean” and “Mr. Bean’s Vacation” fame) remain his biggest cultural export when he’s got a perfectly good one languishing in the closet (Edmund Blackadder, in any of his historical incarnations) is galling. More than anything, it’s just depressing seeing him deadpan his way slowly towards the grave. If you want a recent 007 spoof done right, then hit up Michel Hazanavicius’ two “OSS 117” films. Hell, even the first two “Austin Powers” movies have more verbal ingenuity than anything on display here. The film’s official website merely threatens the film’s status is “coming soon”, so why not break up that time by watching a classic British comedy like “Kind Hearts and Coronets” or “A Fish Called Wanda“, or more recent triumphs like “In the Loop” and “Four Lions“, before this benign tumor explodes at some point in the coming months? [Vlicious]