More a resuscitation than a rebirth, “Johnny English Reborn” finds British comedian Rowan Atkinson reviving his spoof spy character with this enjoyable if somewhat wheezy reprise. A belated follow-up to the franchise’s 2003 opening installment, pic sticks to the James Bond spoof template in its story structure and use of exotic locales like Hong Kong and the Alps, and shows Atkinson’s flair for bodily and facial contortions can still generate family-friendly laffs. Pic’s Oz preem pre-empted the international release schedule by a few weeks; pic will roll out across Europe in early October, and Oct. 28 Stateside.
MI7-operative Johnny English (Atkinson) is recalled from a Tibetan monastery, to which the disgraced agent voluntarily retreated after botching a vital mission in Mozambique five years earlier. Opening sequences show a bearded, ponytailed English in martial-arts training, with results both predictable and unexpected. This sets the standard of humor to follow; much of the film frequently raises smiles, but substantial belly laughs are more sporadic.
Back at MI7’s London HQ, English finds the Blighty secret-service agency has a new CEO. In line with the Bond franchise, which replaced Bernard Lee with Judi Dench, English’s new boss is no-nonsense businesswoman Pegasus (Gillian Anderson, sporting a passable English accent), who has overseen the corporate privatization of the agency and its sale to a Japanese technology company.
Also quickly introduced are MI7 staff behavioral psychologist Kate Sumner (“Die Another Day” Bond girl Rosamund Pike) and English’s fellow agent and old friend Simon Ambrose (a smooth Dominic West), who wastes no time reminding English of his Mozambique disaster. Signaling his trauma, English’s right eye goes into spasm in synch with the soundtrack’s African drums every time Mozambique is mentioned.
Although several blunders — insulting the prime minister and beating up an innocent old woman among them — do nothing to endear the titular klutz to his new boss, English is sent to Hong Kong on a new mission. There, he’s paired up with junior Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya), who, natch, is more on the ball than his mentor. In a Kowloon tenement, the two rendezvous with renegade CIA agent Titus Fisher (a gruff Richard Schiff), who reveals he’s part of a three-way alliance called Vortex, which possesses a chemical weapon of which one of his treacherous partners, an MI7 mole, seeks solitary control. English’s mishandling of the case sees both him and Tucker suspended from the operation, while the MI7 mole proceeds to frame the bumbling British spy for any mayhem he hasn’t caused.
Screenplay leans more heavily on the Bond films for inspiration than the first “Johnny English” pic did, winking at the “Goldfinger” golf game and sampling the snowmobile chase from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Other references run rampant as well: The Tibetan monk in the opening sequence recalls “Kung Fu,” while English’s fights with an aging Asian assassin (Pik Sen-lim) derivatively recall his Gallic counterpart Inspector Clouseau’s battles with his own Eastern manservant.
Atkinson takes advantage of a souped-up wheelchair and a stunt team to provide comic action, but the gags that work best are the simple ones. English playing with lipstick while under the influence of an unpronounceable drug, or being unable to control the vertical function of an office chair, provide greater satisfaction than the more technology-derived stunts.
The other thesps hit their marks and make their characters as convincing as circumstances allow, but feel like wallpaper next to the star’s grin-inducing shenanigans. Less amusing is the (hopefully) unintended racist slur in which an arrogant English refers to his black sidekick as “You clever boy.” It’s a tacky moment in an otherwise inoffensive film.
While Atkinson’s timing remains impeccable, “St Trinian’s” helmer Oliver Parker has a tendency to undercut the comedic impact of all but the most obvious gags. Lensing by Danny Cohen lends the pic a shiny veneer and Ilan Eshkeri’s score plays it pretty straight, preferring to let the comedy speak for itself.