Johnny English Reborn

“Johnny English Reborn” is an unremarkable sequel to the unremarkable “Johnny English,” made in 2003.

Things resume with bumbling British spy Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) having messed up a major mission in Mozambique and having had a meltdown. Any mention of Mozambique, and English’s eye begins to twitch uncontrollably.

Although he may not have the genius of a Peter Sellers, the graying Atkinson at this point may be the closest thing mainstream cinema has to someone like Sellers: an expert in physical comedy who drinks from a deeper intelligence, even at times a sense of the tragic.

The “Johnny English” films operate in an “Inspector Clouseau meets James Bond” framework but keep things way too safe, restraining Atkinson’s talent. The serviceable slapstick in the new film, which is accompanied by many run-of-the-mill action bits, never once reaches a Sellers level of cleverness (although a cooking scene that goes with the end credits is a nice exercise by Atkinson in comic timing).

The funniest things Atkinson and director Oliver Parker come up with are English violently (and distastefully) attacking elderly women in cases of mistaken identity and English hopping around in a body bag after he has pretended to be killed.

“Johnny English Reborn” begins promisingly enough at a Tibetan monastery—one of the film’s tighter sequences—where English trains in martial arts and meditation to get his mojo back after said meltdown. His training includes much dragging around of bigger and bigger rocks tied to his private parts.

The slight screenplay, by Hamish McColl, has English then being called back to work and finding the spy world much changed. His former employer has been privatized as “Toshiba British Intelligence,” and his new boss is a woman (Gillian Anderson) who strongly favors dialogue over the torture tactics the guys prefer. The corporatization of spying has satiric potential that McColl barely taps into.

English is assigned a sidekick, Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), an ultra-sincere yet dangerously inexperienced young man. This turns out to be the best piece of the film: the two actors play off each other nicely for the film’s most lively and even moving moments.

The senior spy gradually realizes how much he needs his assistant’s help to stay on track and out of more trouble.

Tucker is a stand-in for the audience, often perplexed by the idiotic plans that pop into English’s head but usually without any better ideas of his own to offer. He tends to see how things are going to go wrong before they do but then cannot take the necessary action to avert disaster in time. Many accidents go down with Tucker as their frozen witness.

Once introduced to each other, English and Tucker are immediately off on a global quest to nail Vortex, a trio of paid assassins (representative moles from the KGB, CIA, and MI7).

This first leads them to Hong Kong, a chance for Parker to do a passable job of parodying some conventions of martial arts films.

But then come bumps in the road, big bumps: there is a dull golf game that leads into a silly helicopter escape and later an electric wheelchair chase that adds no momentum to the film.

Parker finally stages a showdown on a Swiss mountaintop that will make audiences pine for some real Bond, not this tired imitation. Everything starts to feel machinelike in “Johnny English Reborn.”

McColl fails to give English enough funny things to say, although one standout has the spy exclaiming, “Dear God, we’re going to die at the hands of the Swiss!”

Anderson and the rest of the supporting cast, including Rosamund Pike as English’s potential girlfriend and Dominic West as his MI7 rival, do their best to clear the way for Atkinson’s antics and look like they are all having fun. If only the audience were as well.

There are few surprises and few laughs to be had in “Johnny English Reborn.”

Cast

Johnny English – Rowan Atkinson

Simon Ambrose – Dominic West

Pegasus – Gillian Anderson

Kate Sumner – Rosamund Pike

Agent Tucker – Daniel Kaluuya

Titus Fisher – Richard Schiff

Bough – Ben Miller

Elderly Asian Assassin – Pik Sen-lim

Master Ting Wang – Togo Igawa

Credits

A Universal release.

Directed by Oliver Parker.

Written by Hamish McColl.

Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Chris Clark.

Cinematography, Danny Cohen.

Editing, Guy Bensley.

Original Music, Ilan Eshkeri.

Running time: 101 minutes.