Upon hearing that a sequel to “Johnny English” is on its way, the average American will have one of two reactions: either “Why is that flop getting a sequel?” or “What is ‘Johnny English’?” Both responses are valid. The James Bond spoof, starring Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling British spy, only made $28 million in the U.S. in 2003 and was quickly forgotten. But it was a huge hit everywhere else, grossing more than $132 million in foreign territories, including $20 million in Germany alone. Germans loved “Johnny English”! It was their ninth highest-grossing film of 2003! (Really!) No doubt they and the rest of Europe have spent the last eight years pining for “Johnny English Reborn.”
Not having seen the first chapter, I can’t say whether its fans will be equally pleased with the sequel, which is a wearyingly unimaginative caper aimed at kids, but it looks like more of the same. Atkinson’s knack for comic timing and his gift for physical humor are almost without equal, as he’s demonstrated off and on for the last 30 years with Mr. Bean, “Black Adder,” and so forth. But he can only do so much without good material to work with, and “Johnny English Reborn” doesn’t provide it.
In the film, the title character, who was dismissed from MI7 after a botched mission in Mozambique five years ago, is called back into service to help prevent an assassination attempt against the Chinese premier. Gillian Anderson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West, and Daniel Kaluuya play some of his colleagues, always either baffled or bedazzled by him. The joke, of course, is that Johnny English is clumsy, obtuse, and incompetent, in the manner of Inspector Clouseau and Mr. Magoo and all their compatriots in the Bumbling Morons Who Inadvertently Achieve Success hall of fame.
I don’t have a problem with the logic of it — hey, it’s a slapstick comedy, I’ll buy almost anything — but so much of Johnny’s imbecilic behavior is dragged out interminably, well past the point of being funny. For example, there’s an elderly Chinese double agent (Pik Sen Lim) trying to kill him, and he keeps mistaking other old women for her. He’ll grab some harmless lady from behind, get her in a headlock so we can’t see her face, and leap around claiming he’s captured the assassin for what feels like minutes before it’s finally “revealed” that he got the wrong person, which of course we picked up on ages ago. Another running gag has him constantly — and predictably, and unamusingly — misusing the high-tech spy gadgets issued to him by MI7. Yawn.
Some routines are better than others, and naturally, your mileage may vary. In every case, Atkinson is admirably committed to the action. Whether it’s funny or not, you can tell he believes in it and is striving to make it work. You might not think that would matter much, but it’s easy to spot the difference between someone who’s sincere about what he’s doing and someone who knows it isn’t funny and is only in it for the paycheck. Atkinson can do (and has done) better than this reheated, tiresome shtick.
C (1 hr., 41 min.; )