Mr. Bean goes 007 in “Johnny English,” an extremely silly but effective enough romp for family auds, showcasing Brit comic Rowan Atkinson’s trademarked brand of arrogant dumbness. There’s nothing exactly new here for older auds — Bond spoofs have been around for almost as long as the character himself — and the script lacks the normal polish of Working Title’s productions, but the presence of Aussie thrush Natalie Imbruglia, in her first bigscreen role, reps a draw for younger viewers. Released throughout most of Europe (plus Oz) in the second week of April, pic looks set for jovial business, especially on home turf, with Stateside release skedded for July 18.
Script, originally by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who worked on the past two Bond opuses, gets straight down to business with a pre-credits sequence that tangentially recalls “From Russia With Love.” In reality, Johnny English (Atkinson) turns out to be a lowly, desk-based member of “MI7,” but when the department’s prize operative, Agent One, is killed in Biarritz, and all the other agents are blown up at his funeral, English’s boss, Pegasus (Tim Pigott-Smith), upgrades the klutzy spook.
Enter Gallic entrepreneur Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, with an accent as thick as camembert cheese), who owns a £7 billion ($10 billion) business empire founded on commercially run prisons. Anglophile Sauvage is sponsoring an exhibition of the Crown Jewels and, when the royal baubles disappear right under English’s nose on opening night, the MI7 op sets out to nail the “flouncy Frenchman.”
Like the pic’s title itself, which plays on the pejorative Brit term “Johnny Foreigner,” English is an old-style comic xenophobe. (In a line that gains unexpected resonance from contemporary events, English sneers that “the only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion.”) But the jibes are good-humored enough, with the bumbling Brits coming off worse throughout the movie.
Following an underground tunnel that was the thieves’ escape route, English and his long-suffering sidekick, Bough (Ben Miller), chase a hearse in which the jewels are stashed. First real action sequence, involving some passingly clever work with English’s car stuck on a hoist, sets the generally low-tech level of the film, which remains more reliant on character comedy than flashy f/x.
Pegasus still refuses to believe that the respected Sauvage is the villain, but English blunders on in his simple-minded conviction, later joined by the mysterious Lorna (Imbruglia), who keeps cropping up in the wrong places. Film as a whole starts to develop a real comic rhythm — as opposed to being simply a series of set pieces — at the hour mark, with a temporary shift of location to the south of France and a loony, off-the-scale finale in Westminster Abbey as Sauvage seeks to become King of England.
Unlike other spy spoofs, especially “Austin Powers,” film doesn’t rely on referencing Bond movies or coming up with witty one-liners. Comedy is more character than genre-based and, in true Bean-ish style, comes from the audience always being one step ahead of the main protag.
The comic pay-off thus becomes at what point the disdainful English will throw away the spade and slide out of his embarrassment — a routine Atkinson has already honed to perfection. (Character is based on one he created for a series of commercials for U.K. credit card company Barclaycard.) Rest of the cast is OK, though Imbruglia doesn’t have much more to do than look beautiful and Malkovich isn’t as funny as he should be. Miller, however, is fine as Atkinson’s cartoony straight man. Casting of Kevin McNally as the U.K. prime minister seems designed as an in-joke for British auds, as the thesp bears some resemblance to Gordon Brown, Tony Blair’s ambitious deputy.
Helmer Peter Howitt (“Sliding Doors,” “AntiTrust”) directs without any special signature or gloss. Technical credits are pro, with editor Robin Sales bringing the film in at an ultra-tight 86 minutes, including credits. Edward Shearmur’s score incorporates several Bondish nods, and Remi Adefarasin’s lensing gets the job done.