- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

“Johnny English,” a diverting espionage farce predicated on Rowan Atkinson’s ability to project both overconfident and sheepish character traits, seems a welcome small-stakes rival to Mike Myers’ Austin Powers franchise. A late arrival in the United States, “Johnny English” is reputed to be an official blockbuster in foreign markets, having earned more than $100 million in the United Kingdom and other Atkinson-friendly outposts of civilization.

“Johnny English” should amuse anyone who has enjoyed Mr. Atkinson in the past and isn’t expecting a farcical masterpiece. The title character is introduced as a Walter Mitty of the British Secret Service. A daydream about being an accomplished secret agent surrenders to deflating reality: Johnny is a hero-worshipping deskman, barely able to form a coherent sentence when meeting the fabled 001 and handing him a file with his latest dangerous assignment.

Calamity proves to be the opportunity that knocks for the eager-beaver but blundering Johnny. The entire Double-0 varsity is assassinated, obliging “Pegasus” (Tim Pigott-Smith), the chief of the Secret Service, to draft Johnny as watchdog for an event in which the Crown Jewels will be on public display — and if dire reports are true, in jeopardy of theft.

Predictably, Johnny blows the assignment. Though he is well-versed in the lore of the profession and not without skills or courage, his judgment and execution repeatedly prove inadequate. Even worse, he’s given to frantic ruses when in a spot. You begin to wonder how he’ll react when he can’t hide from a mishap.

Happily, there’s a sequence at a sushi restaurant that answers this line of speculation. Johnny gets his necktie caught in a conveyer belt and bowls over several customers while being dragged along the counter. “I’m sorry; I’m a secret agent” he plaintively explains.

The night before the Crown Jewels caper, Johnny encounters a suspicious French mogul named Pascal Sauvage, who has made an international fortune with privatized prison management. A bit distracted at the time, Johnny mistakes him for a waiter and volunteers a delightful sweeping generalization while conversing with a female guest: “The only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion.”

Sauvage, mistaken for a man above reproach by Pegasus, is embodied with an oddly cosmetic and absurd aplomb by John Malkovich, sporting a hairpiece that makes him resemble Susan Sontag (a Francophile, admittedly) and an accent that reeks of phonetic imposture.

Despite his other errors in judgment, Johnny is correct to smell a rat where Sauvage is concerned. On his own initiative, he mounts a daring aerial mission to the Continent, aimed at Sauvage’s corporate headquarters, located rather too close to a look-alike skyscraper. Demoted and disgraced, Johnny still has time to save an alarmingly docile England from dynastic outrage: the abdication of Queen Elizabeth II in favor of Sauvage, who is nursing an insidious French dream of transforming the British Isles into one giant penal colony.

As the Austin Powers series has evolved, it’s obvious that the indispensable character is Dr. Evil, the designated nemesis. It has become harder for Mike Myers to rationalize his Powers masquerade. On the other hand, the Dr. Evil family and entourage keep expanding. I don’t know if “Johnny English” is meant to be renewable, but it’s promising that Mr. Atkinson already is working in close tandem with the comedian Ben Miller, cast as Johnny’s loyal and deadpan assistant Bough, pronounced “Buff.”

In the Inspector Clouseau comedies, Peter Sellers had a similar subordinate in Graham Stark, whose assignment was to react noncommittally to the inspector’s blunders. Mr. Miller gets to be a more active and winning collaborator. Bough never criticizes his hapless superior and frequently extricates him from humiliating or perilous situations.

This sort of master-servant, Wooster-Jeeves relationship has room for growth. “Johnny English” also finishes on such an uproarious high, with the hero bending every effort to sabotage the Sauvage coronation ceremony, that the idea of further misadventures is quite appealing. The lulls are scattered cleverly during intermediate episodes. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Johnny English has the right stuff.

TITLE: “Johnny English”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional comic vulgarity, including one sequence dependent on scatological sight gags; occasional sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Howitt. Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes


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