Rowan Atkinson is a comedic asset the way a Triple Whopper is a sandwich. There’s almost too much of him for any occasion. His arms seem to gangle well below his mid thigh. His eyes, ears and nose look imported from other differently proportioned faces. When the camera rests on him, whatever thought he’s having seems rocked by the absurd.
Why then, one wonders, should there be so much set up, so much side business and so much loose and unnecessary plot in Johnny English Reborn? Atkinson has made a career of being funny in largely empty rooms but for the purposes of this new film he is once again the bumbling gentleman spy Johnny English, a man nearly lost in a fog bank of cliché and empty device.
The exploits of Johnny English were first made into a movie in 2003. The first English film not only surrounded Atkison with more characters, plot and distractions than he needs in order to be funny, it seemed oddly tone-deaf regarding what makes him funny as an actor. Whether in dialog or purely physical schtick, Rowan Atkinson thrives in the pause, the moment of realization or exasperated soldiering on. That is perhaps why he remains an acquired taste in the American market. His comedy requires a quiet beat of the sort Americans like filled, and noisily.
This second installment in the Johnny English series provides its star with more good opportunities to be genuinely funny than the first one did. Moments such as an accidental signal flare during an attempted break in, an ad-hypnosis dancing fit and a slew of cheap fall-down gags of the kind Atkinson is currently without peer in executing. The character of English has also developed a genuine suavity, which the movie treats seriously enough to effectively attack to comic effect.
Yet the film lags because it is too intent on telling a predictable spy story. An international cabal of criminals, a threat to a world leader, a double cross from within friendly ranks and a clumsy romantic subplot, all clutter a stage that need only belong to the film’s star.
I know no one cares how well he or she knows the formula of a movie. Been-there-seen-that by no means precludes watching it again the next time it gets made. What I think the Johnny English films must answer for, however, is burying a strange and unique talent like Rowan Atkinson’s in something too complex for low comedy but too simple minded for the truly inspired.
Ultimately I recommend Johnny English Reborn despite its weaknesses because it made me laugh. It could have been more. But what it is, is funny.