Credit: Giles Keyte/Focus Features

Johnny English Strikes Again

Before we begin a review of Johnny English Strikes Again, I must confess that I haven’t seen the first Johnny English film, nor the second. Perhaps if I were better acquainted with the Johnny English Cinematic Universe (JECU), I would have been less baffled by the third go-around.

Fortunately, my deductive powers allowed me to grasp the basics: Johnny English is a British spy for MI7, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson. But from there, I’m afraid I begin to falter. For some reason, at the beginning of the film, English is “retired” as an agent and works as a geography teacher at a local primary school. Instead of teaching students geography, he teaches them the James Bond basics — setting traps, using camouflage, telling women they look lovely while swirling a martini — in a montage that someone, at some point in the writing and development process, must have found amusing.

When a hacker breaks into a British intelligence server and compromises the identities of all active field agents, MI7 is forced to turn to the retired English to find the culprit. At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t that the plot of Skyfall?” The answer is yes. Again, at some point someone presumably noticed this and decided that because this movie is (loosely speaking) a comedy, it qualifies as some sort of parody, even though nothing is being parodied.

And so, with the help of his boffin, Bough (Ben Miller), Johnny English revs up an Aston Martin and embarks on his mission, which includes making silly faces on the coast of France and making silly faces in a Scottish castle, all while mooning over actual former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who gamely plays the Russian spy femme fatale. Meanwhile, the prime minister (Emma Thompson, who deserves a large glass of wine for this) deals with the hacking crisis by enlisting the help of American tech billionaire Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), who agrees to fix the problem if the U.K. hands him all its data.

Like an episode of Scooby-Doo, the mysterious villain is revealed to be one of the five characters we’ve already met. Spoiler alert: It’s that nefarious tech guru who was introduced for no reason other than to be evil (luckily, he monologues his evil plan while alone in his living room).

Unfortunately, there are no ham-fisted monologues to answer the rest of the questions I have about Strikes Again. Questions like: What is Johnny English’s deal? Is he good at his job? Sometimes he appears competent and intelligent, though a bit clumsy; elsewhere in the film, he comes across like he’s suffering from oxygen deficiency. And what is the deal with this film’s heavy moralizing about technology? English makes it very clear on multiple occasions that he doesn’t suffer PC culture, with its safety waivers and hybrid cars, and he doesn’t use one of those silly, unnecessary iPhones. But of course, English’s high-tech spy gadgets are the key to every one of his operations. And though the villain is a Silicon Valley bro, unquestionably evil in his quest for ultimate power through user data, the film features several incidents in which English would have been better off if he had at least a rudimentary understanding of technology. The film’s ethos toward tech, like its logic about its hero’s competence, appears to be “whatever will let Rowan Atkinson do the silliest pratfall at any given moment.”

My final question is the most important one: Who is this movie for? The aforementioned jokes about kids these days and their safety requirements and their Tweeters and Instaphotos seem squarely aimed at the golden generation, but who, I ask, would a movie predicated on silly dances be really aimed at if not children? With its simple key-in-the-hole plot and gags like pants falling down and revealing a bare butt to reporters, this movie might succeed as a competent but forgettable romp for 8-year-olds in a world where Austin Powers, The Pink Panther, and Get Smart didn’t exist for some reason.

Did I laugh? Yes, at a scene in which Johnny English means to take a sleeping pill but accidentally takes a super-energy pill and does a lot of silly dancing. Am I proud of laughing? No. I might have also chuckled at a scene where English (thinking he’s in a virtual-reality simulation) thwacks a pedestrian with two baguettes because he thinks he’s nun-chucking an assailant, but by that point my frontal cortex had abandoned ship as a method of self-preservation.

Every gag in this movie has already been done before, and better, presumably by one or both of the earlier Johnny English films. I promise that I will never force myself to find out. D

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Johnny English Strikes Again
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