Johnny English Reborn

Johnny English Reborn

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Johnny English - top secret agent, sometime knight of the realm and, um, Rowan Atkinson character. For some that last bit is a plus, for others less so, and as a consequence this is destined to be a bit of a Marmite movie, with some people loving it and others bored rigid. I have to say that I expected to be in the latter camp. I was pleasantly surprised.

Although a lot of people try it, spoof comedy is very hard to get right. Those who loved The Naked Gun will be pleased to encounter another film that successfully mines the same vein, even if it uses some of the same jokes in doing so. The first film may have disappointed, with Atkinson's accident-prone hero all nerd and no heart, but lessons have clearly been learned from its mistakes. Here English is given more depth and there's a real story that doesn't depend on the central joke.

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Recovering from the shame of a mission gone wrong, English is recalled to MI7 - now all glass-fronted offices and welcoming brochures, with the slogan spying for you - to hunt down a trio of top assassins bent of taking the life of the Chinese premier. The reason for their scheme is, like their dependence on a key gadget, never really explained, but this doesn't matter; the film is mercifully short on exposition and instead rockets along from one dramatic sequence to the next, with plenty of action and well-paced portions of slapstick thrown in.

A thorough understanding of the principles underlying the spy movie allows the pieces to fall into place without undue fuss. Of course, given the nature of the film, we are never really afraid for English, but there are still a few thrills and one nicely conceived early chase that sustains itself surprisingly well. There's also a great wheelchair pursuit later on, a rare example of comedy about disability that respects disabled people's experiences and is far funnier as a result.

Holding all this together is a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Gillian Anderson brings humanity to the sometimes stooge-like role of the new MI7 head, and this film ultimately does a better job than Bond at exploring the clash between old and new corporate cultures; her strong career woman, juggling busy family life with responsibility for looking after heads of state, is surprisingly well realised. English's consequent retreat into old boys club jokes is approached sympathetically but not uncritically and becomes poignant as he gradually realises he's not really one of them after all - a grammar school educated oik in a society dominated by old Etonians, which gives the film an unexpected political dimension.

The upper classes are exemplified by Dominic West, who Clarksons it up as the dynamic Agent One, a charismatic but deeply unpleasant foil. Fortunately, the embattled English has a couple of allies in his corner. There's stylish psychologist Kate (Rosamund Pike) and there's earnest young Agent Tucker (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya, demonstrating that his breakthrough performance in Cass was no fluke). Stephen Campbell Moore is also interesting as an unnamed Prime Minister; playing the part in uncertain times, he has carefully pitched it mid-way between Cameron and Miliband, creating a rather disconcerting hybrid.

Still relying on cheap laughs in places and not always pulling off its ambitious ideas, Johnny English Reborn won't blow you away, but it's much more fun than anyone could reasonably have expected it to be. It's smart, balancing OTT action with dry wit; it's sneakily endearing, and it's terribly British.

Reviewed on: 03 Oct 2011
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Disgraced secret agent Johnny English is welcomed back into the fold as a trio of top assassins threaten the Chinese premier.
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Director: Oliver Parker

Writer: William Davies, Hamish McColl

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West, Daniel Kaluuya, Gillian Anderson

Year: 2011

Runtime: 101 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, France, UK

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