Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 17, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Johnny English

Current Status
In Season
87 minutes
Wide Release Date
Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia
Peter Howitt
Ben Elton, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Comedy, ActionAdventure

We gave it a B

It’s a good thing the nincompoop secret agent in the delightfully daft British spy spoof Johnny English has never heard of his swingin’ colleague Austin Powers. If he had, English would know that the whole James Bond parody has been done before, by-bee. But, of course, English is as clueless as they come. Indeed, he’s a dunderhead possessed of such blithe density that I can think of only one other cheery incompetent quite like him, and that’s the unsinkable Mr. Bean.

It’s no accident that English is played, as was Bean, by the extraordinary British comedian Rowan Atkinson. Those, therefore, who don’t respond to the mesmerizing self-centeredness of the nitwit Bean may feel equally underentertained by the antics of English, who is chosen for assignment only because he has accidentally caused the demise of every one of his superiors. English has little of Powers’ sophisticated cheekiness, and there are times during this escapade — in which English is sent to uncover a plot to steal the Crown Jewels — when the groan-laugh switch gets stuck on groan.

But even those who find Beanism grinding ought to get a load of ”Johnny English” — a huge international hit — for two cool reasons. First, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who wrote the script with William Davies) are bona fide operatives, having written ”The World Is Not Enough” and ”Die Another Day,” and they create a giddy Bizarro Bond world — a place where a chap can say ”Never mind about the gadgets!” and mean it. (Having smartly toggled Gwyneth Paltrow between realities with ”Sliding Doors,” director Peter Howitt keeps Atkinson’s bumbling moving at a nice clip.)

Second, John Malkovich stars as the slithery French villain-businessman Pascal Sauvage. And I do believe that in a showdown with Powers’ dastardly nemesis Dr. Evil — or, indeed, with this summer’s other great scenery chewer, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow — the hilarious Malkovich, coiffed in an artful pageboy and savoring a fruity French accent, would overpower the competition on sheer thespian madness.

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