Silly spies are meat and two veg for comic actors. Roger Moore played one for years. His name was James Bond.

On the face of it, Johnny English is spoof Fleming, although originated as a series of TV commercials Rowan Atkinson did for Barclaycard. The clumsy secret agent who makes disastrous decisions, breaks into wrong buildings, carries a gun that falls apart when fired and climbs up a sewage pipe at the busiest time of the morning cannot fail to amuse. Well, sure-fire hits have bombed before. Does anyone remember Hudson Hawk?

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Johnny English is not a complete moron. He's accident prone, who, unlike Michael Crawford's Frank Spencer, lacks a sympathetic base. You don't care about him, or whether he retrieves the stolen Crown Jewels, or kisses the girl (Natalie Imbruglia), or outwits the villain (John Malkovich). He's a fool, rather than a friend, which makes a difference in the spy game. The success of Knock On Wood, a classic Fifties comedy thriller, was the warmth of Danny Kaye's performance. Atkinson doesn't do warm. He does NERD ALERT!

The true weakness of the film is the script - stand down Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, William Davies. A single gag runs through it and you dread the next time Agent English says, "The word 'mistake' is not one that appears in my dictionary," only to make yet another almighty cock up. There is a reserve joke, similarly overused, which concerns Bough (Ben Miller), English's tame civil servant, who, in his quiet unobtrusive way, does everything right.

There are two surprise pleasures. Australian pop singer Imbruglia plays the English version of a Bond babe. She's very good at it. In fact, she has personality to burn and rides a mean motor bike, not to mention displaying kick boxing skills that should encourage Jackie Chan to take down her number. She's a looker, too, and, like Kylie, an Old Neighbourian.

The real heat comes from Malkovich's French entrepreneur, who has made a fortune building private prisons throughout Europe. His plan to be crowned king of England, so that he can turn the entire island into a fortress jail, is as batty as a church spire, but, hey, why not?

Wearing a shoulder-length wig and slipping oh-so-easily into Gallic charm, he demonstrates an uncanny knack at comedic timing. While Atkinson is busting a gut to achieve the phantom of a giggle, Malkovich lays back and lets the idiocy wash over him.

Reviewed on: 09 Apr 2003
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A spoof James Bond adventure, with Rowan Atkinson playing the accident prone secret agent.
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Director: Peter Howitt

Writer: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, William Davies

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, John Malkovich, Tim Pigott-Smith, Oliver Ford Davies, Greg Wise

Year: 2003

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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