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Johnny English

directed by Peter Howitt

starring Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, John Malkovich, Ben Miller

Universal

Rowan Atkinson is a very funny man. At his best, he approaches comedic genius. However, in Atkinson's second feature film, Johnny English, the star of the British TV series Blackadder and Mr. Bean, isn't in peak form as often as he should... but that isn't his fault.

What's with whitey?

To tell the truth, Johnny English (making its U.S. debut July 18) is a worldwide smash-hit, and for good reason: the film borrows heavily from Peter Sellers, adds a tiny dash of Roger Moore, and the result is fairly entertaining. Atkinson stars as English, a civil servant whose spy-dreams come true when his ineptitude results in the death of all of Britain's secret agents. Unaware of English's buffoonery, his M17 superior Pegasus (Tim Pigott-Smith), promotes him to spy status. His first assignment is the protection of the Crown jewels, which have been restored by wealthy benefactor Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich).

 
Look, it pays the bills. Plus, I get hair.
Faster than you can say "the Pink Panther," the jewels are stolen -- and with able assistant Bough (Ben Miller) at his side, English is on the case. He fumbles and bumbles his way through the pursuit, spending a great deal of time covering up his foibles. At every turn, the spy encounters the sexy and mysterious Lorna Campbell (pop star Natalie Imbruglia), who -- surprise, surprise, is an Interpol agent out to recover the jewels.

When the film is funny, it is hilarious -- an early scene with French-bashing English in hand-to-hand combat with a nonexistent assassin is straight out of the Clouseau catalogue, as is the crashing of a gravesite service, with English convinced that the jewels have been secreted in the coffin. Atkinson, in his inimitable, sublime way, could go toe-to-toe with Jim Carrey in the clever physical comedy-meets-funny facial expression department; however, it seems as if Johnny English's makers keep Atkinson on a short leash for much of the film, with too many rote, coat-caught-in-the-door-type antics filling in the gaps. The choppily-paced movie doesn't really get its legs until the last few acts, with a surprisingly satisfying finale.

Apart from Imbruglia, who has talent and commands the screen nicely, the cast's roles are of the wallpaper variety. Even Malkovich's talents are largely wasted -- the unimaginative screenwriters would have done a better service to the film by letting him be John Malkovich and ad-lib his entire dialogue. While Atkinson has clearly been inspired by Sellers, director Peter Howitt has not been inspired by Blake Edwards... or anyone else, for that matter. While a few inventively-shot scenes are to be applauded, the rest of Johnny English could use some '60s-style experimental camera-work without stepping on Austin Powers' shoes; likewise, the whole film could have had a whole style-and-substance makeover -- clever direction meeting Atkinson's cleverness -- without incurring a lawsuit from the Edwards camp.

Boy, will Inspector Dreyfus be mad!

But the powers-that-be in the Johnny English franchise (Atkinson's "English" was the star of 17 Barclaycard commercials, and more Johnny English films are planned) seem satisfied with barely clearing the bar -- a bar that is lowered every year, it seems -- by producing a generic, cheaply-made "family film" that appeals to everyone, one that no one will remember a month after they've seen it. Johnny English is a decent matinee view with some laugh-out-loud moments -- and with a promising shelf-life on DVD -- but it could have been so much more.

Johnny English: http://www.johnny-english.com/