Review: ‘Johnny English Reborn’ Doesn’t Shake Up the Spy Genre, But Stirs Some Laughs

By  · Published on October 21st, 2011

It should come as absolutely no surprise that understanding (and potentially even enjoying) Johnny English Reborn does not necessitate any sort of familiarity with the first film, though moviegoers who are acquainted with Rowan Atkinson’s particular brand of idiot-in-the-wild humor will likely find a few more chuckles in the film than those who are not.

Atkinson reprises his role as dumb bunny “MI-7” spy Johnny English for the film, picking up after the action of 2003’s eponymously named Johnny English, which saw him prevail against all odds (most notably, his complete lack of skill and overinflated confidence). But English is now in disgrace, self-exiled to a monastery in Tibet after a job gone awry inMozambique (English’s failure there made international headlines – my favorite of which being a rag’s pronouncement that the entire operation should be called “Doh’zambique”). English is attempting to re-center himself through rest, mediation, and literally dragging a stone around by his balls, so it’s probably welcome news when a former associate comes forth with intel about a shady assassination trio. “Vortex” is bent on offing the Chinese premier, but American agent Fisher (Richard Schiff) will only talk to English. Suddenly, the world’s dumbest spy is back in action and essential to planetary peace.

While Johnny English Reborn riffs on spy flicks in general, it most specifically goes after fiction’s most famous British spy, throwing over James Bond’s suave life in MI-6 for English’s embarrassing existence in MI-7. He’s got his own female boss (Gillian Anderson now plays the role of MI-7 boss “Pegasus”) and a brainy lady counterpart that he’s trying to woo (former Bond Girl Rosamund Pike as a behavioral psychologist, who is at least more believable in her doctor role than a similar Bond babe, Dr. Christmas Jones). MI-7 is even tricked out with its own lab for crafting nifty tools to aid more able spies, along with a Q-based creator, veteran Brit funnyman Tim McInnerny as the accident-prone Quartermain.

But because English is, to put it mildly, a total moron, he’s forced to interact with some other spies that only illuminate his complete idiocy, such as Dominic West as a true Bond surrogate, the irrepressibly smooth Ambrose, and Daniel Kaluuya as boy genius Agent Tucker (English greets the addition of Tucker to his mission with a tossed-off comment about how it will be good to have someone else around “to carry the bags,” all but guaranteeing that Tucker will be the real brains of the operations, despite the fact that he still lives with his mother and can’t legally drink alcohol).

The film has an unexpected amount of satisfying jokes that function as reasonably well-crafted satirical jabs at the spy genre. However, the more clever cracks are consistently overrun by juvenile attempts and tricks. For every amusingly put-together riff on over-engineered vehicles (English himself calls his souped-up Rolls Royce “the Rolls Royce of cars”), there’s a brief bit with English ending up in a Dumpster with a dirty nappy on his face. Atkinson eventually falls back into old habits, with English slowly devolving into a sort of Mr. Bean in a well-cut suit, an out-of-place goof who is startlingly unable to function properly in the modern world. This is not nearly as amusing as it sounds.

The film has no less than three large-scale chase scenes, and though the first one is frighteningly clever (with English using his brains to outsmart a younger and stronger opponent, while also managing to end up commandeering a private yacht packed with gauche rich people who are tickled pink to have a real spy on board), all of them run too long to sustain their humor. These sequences most ably reflect the nature of Johnny English Reborn itself – at turns clever and commonplace, buoyant until they’re boring, and not funny enough to fill their total runtime.

The Upside: Fans of Atkinson’s humor will enjoy the outing, there are a number of well-placed cracks that should make whole audiences chuckle, and Daniel Kaluuya is a terribly amusing sidekick.

The Downside: If you don’t like Atkinson’s other work, spy flicks, or silliness, you’ll absolutely hate Johnny English Reborn.

On the Side: Seriously, that “Rolls Royce of cars” joke is hilarious in context.