Dir: Peter Howitt. UK. 2003. 89mins.
More Carry On Spying than Austin Powers, Johnny English is a surprisingly tentative spy spoof that should still prove a licence to print money for production company Working Title. A family-friendly version of Mike Myers' racier, more inventive espionage antics, the combination of local comedy king Rowan Atkinson, pop sensation Natalie Imbruglia and the James Bond-style japery should make it a strong Easter holiday draw in the UK market where it is released on April 11. The visual humour and slapstick tone will allow it to travel but the material may seem somewhat puerile for global tastes. That said, Atkinson's last major solo vehicle, 1997's Mr Bean was a massive overseas success, taking $232m worldwide, 81% of it outside the US, so his drawing power should not be dismissed too easily. The current popularity of James Bond - the film is partly scripted by Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who wrote Die Another Day and The World Is Not Enough - may also play in its favour. Universal releases it in the US on July 18.
Back on form after disappointing supporting roles in Rat Race and Scooby Doo, Atkinson plays the kind of inept secret agent who could trace his screen lineage back through Austin Powers to Naked Gun's Lieutenant Frank Drebin and Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. A walking disaster area, the character of bungling British agent Johnny English was first developed in a series of TV commercials for a UK credit card. But Purvis and Wade, partly responsible for developing a feature-length showcase from this, have less fun biting the hand that feeds than might have been imagined and rarely exploit the potential for humour in sending up the Bond formula of babes, baddies and gizmos. Adult innuendo is noticeable by its absence, toilet humour is kept to a merciful minimum and there is almost a wholesome air to the proceedings.
English, a lowly, backroom bureaucrat in the British government, is called upon to serve Queen and country only when every other agent in the land has been killed. Entrusted with the safety of the Crown Jewels, he stumbles upon a diabolical plan by French billionaire Pascal Sauvage (Malkovich) to steal the historic treasures, force the Queen into abdication and have himself crowned King Of England. Aided by loyal assistant Bough (Miller) and mystery woman Lorna (Imbruglia), English sets out to save the day.
Blessed with the kind of rubbery physiognomy that invites laughter even in repose, Atkinson is a priceless asset to the film. His timing and range of expressions make the most of every comic moment and let the familiar material of blunders, mishaps and public humiliation seem funnier than it might appear on the page. His presence and past reputation seem even more essential to creating an audience for a film where director Peter Howitt, who directed Sliding Doors, displays a frustrating tendency to abandon scenes just when the merriment level appears to be increasing. Sporting flowing, salt and pepper locks and a Jean-Paul Gaultier accent, Malkovich is a game if underused baddie. However, Imbruglia, reveals real screen presence in the small demands that are placed upon her. Ben Miller offers selfless, straight man support in the role of English's longsuffering sidekick.
Production values throughout are strong for such a modest comedy whilst Shearmur's brassy, Bond-style soundtrack hits the right notes. A title track from Robbie Williams supplies an extra marketing hook to catch the target audience of younger audiences and families even if they might like the idea of the film more than the film itself.
Prod co: Working Title
UK dist: UIP
Prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam
Scr: Robert Wade, Neal Purvis, William Davies
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Prod des: Chris Seagers
Ed: Robin Sales
Music: Ed Shearmur
Main cast: Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, Douglas McFerran, Tim Pigott-Smith