*/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C+
starring Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, John Malkovich
screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and William Davies
directed by Peter Howitt
by Bill Chambers The only thing mustier than James Bond movies are parodies of them, and as if we needed proof, along comes the excruciatingly predictable 007 send-up Johnny English, in which Rowan Atkinson soars to the lows of Leslie Nielsen at his most contemptibly greedy (see: Spy Hard). (I like both comedians, Atkinson and Nielsen, but only when they're leashed to masters Richard Curtis and David Zucker, respectively.) If it's true that Atkinson was recently motivated by the stateside failure of this very film to check himself into an Arizona rehab centre for depressed celebrities (and frankly, don't blame audiences--distributor Universal didn't exactly tax themselves advertising Johnny English to domestic moviegoers), I hope his caretakers remind him in haste that none of Monty Python's features grossed an enviable sum abroad, that the James Bond franchise has already satirized itself into the ground (it's no casual point that Johnny English was co-scripted by the same writing team behind The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day), and that his first problem is trying to please a country that opens rehab centres for depressed celebrities.
After every secret agent in England is killed in the same explosion (okay, that's kinda funny), Walter Mitty-esque MI-7 pencil pusher Johnny English (Atkinson) takes his position at the front of the line as Britain's newest superspy. He's bumbling, of course. And inept. He even has one of those scenes where he tries to impress someone with his mastery of a foreign tongue, only to find his phraseology translated as "May your children be born with three bottoms." Unlike Bond, English has a partner, Bough (Ben Miller); one imagines the aim was for Bough to conjure memories of Ben Kingsley's Watson in Without a Clue, the silent brains of the outfit, but the tone of the film is more reminiscent of "Inspector Gadget" than of Sherlock Holmes, with Bough a hybrid of Gadget's niece and her canine companion to whom English is both oblivious and patronizing. (I figure that by the time I'm trotting out references to "Inspector Gadget", it's not me who's barely trying, but the filmmakers.) To Johnny English's credit, it's a well-enough observed spoof to include vast numbers of plot holes and a car chase with English's Aston Martin dangling from a crane that feels sarcastically culled from outtakes of previous Bond adventures. Don't be surprised if director Peter Howitt is one day hired to oversee the genuine article.
For what it's worth, John Malkovich is in this thing. One assumes from his coveted "and X as Y" credit that the role will amount to a cameo, yet Malkovich actually has a sizable part as English's (and England's) arch enemy, a French industrialist who plans to get Queen Elizabeth to abdicate the throne, be coronated in her place, and transform Great Britain into a prison colony, which will apparently net him oodles of cash but, more importantly, allow his inner megalomaniac to run riot. While I'm always up for jokes at the expense of the French, if often stultified by their lack of imagination (you do realize that we used to hold Jerry Lewis in pretty high regard, too, don't you?), Malkovich's unpleasant turn coincides with his decision to leave his adoptive homeland of France over a tax dispute--I'd rather not be forcefed another man's sour grapes. As the love interest, soap-cum-pop star Natalie Imbruglia acquits herself surprisingly well (perhaps I'd rip into her if she weren't already torn), but in some incommunicable way, no woman looks right standing next to Rowan Atkinson. He's a "Spitting Image" puppet among humans.
Universal presents Johnny English on DVD in a slightly noisy and edgy 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that's married to a questionable Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. (Fullscreen version sold separately.) Though colouring is exquisite and shadow detail is arguably improved by the artificial sharpening, I kept thinking the image should be obscured by fewer particles of grain. A low-volume centre channel inhibits the audio, causing dialogue to be overwhelmed by sound effects and, in the case of Robbie Williams's catchy theme song, vocals to be overwhelmed by bass. Surround usage is abundant but largely undistinguished.
The absence of a Special Edition label has not precluded supplementary material. Running 25 minutes, Feasible Films' made-in-Britain "Johnny English: Behind the Scenes - Classified Information" spends an inordinate amount of time deconstructing the visual effects for a film that won't be remembered for its trick photography if it's remembered for anything; Malkovich is typically intense during his talking-head. An 8-minute block of deleted scenes restores a subplot of sorts revolving around an assassination chamber inside Malkovich's office, which among others claims the life of another character essayed by Atkinson, the Tourette's-afflicted--and all-too-aptly named--Baron De Witt. Atkinson as Johnny English hosts a minute's worth of "Spy Tips," while an easy "Observation Test" rewards the perfect score with an elided passage those of you who watch the deleted scenes section beforehand will have already seen. Bond-style "Character Profiles," ROM-enabled features such as a separate spy "challenge" and "profiler" (plus an "Identikit"), and the trailer for the current Peter Pan round out the disc. Forced previews for The Cat in the Hat, The Rundown, and Bring It On Again preface the main menu. Originally published: January 3, 2004.