Friday, October 21, 2011

Johnny English Reborn: Sporadically silly spy spoof

Johnny English Reborn (2011) • View trailer for Johnny English Reborn
Three stars. Rating: PG, for mild action violence, occasional rude humor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.11

Rowan Atkinson’s expressions are to die for, and his best moments in Johnny English Reborn are priceless.

Alas, moments do not a movie make.
While junior agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya, right) watches from a discreet
distance, MI-7 director Thornton (Gillian Anderson) warns Johnny English
(Rowan Atkinson) that times have moved beyond the unacceptable behavior
of traditionally chauvinistic secret agents, and that — as a result — she won't
tolerate any of his old, cheeky ways.

I first encountered Atkinson in 1983, when he had the small but quite memorable role as the hapless Nigel Small-Fawcett, a bureaucratic drone supporting Sean Connery’s last hurrah as James Bond, in Never Say Never Again. Despite being surrounded by the usual action-laden 007 escapades, Atkinson’s role felt designed for his specific comedic talents.

Sad to confess, I somehow missed Atkinson’s career-making work in Blackadder. He next hit my radar in 1990 or ’91, when one of his first Mr. Bean sketches popped up as a short prior to a movie screening; this was at least a year before HBO began importing this series to the States.

Rarely have I laughed so hard at a five-minute comedy bit.

Now convinced, I caught up with Blackadder and started clocking his occasional big-screen efforts: highly memorable supporting roles in The Tall Guy, The Witches, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually and a few others.

Then he brought Mr. Bean to the big screen: the first time not too well, the second time more successfully.

By this point, Atkinson’s predicament had become apparent. Like Tim Conway, Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams, Atkinson is funniest when allowed to improvise and play to his own comedic strengths, which are considerable. That’s why his movie guest spots are so successful; he essentially plays variations on the hapless Mr. Bean or the sneering Edmund Blackadder.

But if welded to a script — or to the requirements of a specific genre — Atkinson winds up out of his comfort zone. Part of the problem, and this is a tragic thing to say, is that Atkinson is far better as a supporting player than a star. He can own short, individual moments of slapstick genius; carrying a film is a different matter.

That’s why 1997’s big-screen Bean was such a disappointment. The original Mr. Bean sketches ran no more than 10 or 15 minutes; the best ones were even shorter. The character wasn’t designed for an 85-minute movie, and the sequences between priceless bits dragged like the chains behind Marley’s Ghost.

2007’s sequel, Mr. Bean’s Vacation, did a better job of playing to the character’s strengths, but — because a full-length movie demands as much — Mr. Bean still was forced to develop relationships. Which simply isn’t in the character’s nature.

In between the two Bean flicks, Atkinson invaded — and torpedoed — a new genre, by sending up spy flicks as the well-intentioned but utterly hopeless Johnny English: eternal embarrassment of the British Secret Service. The character was a feature-length cousin of a series of British TV ads for Barclaycard, in which Atkinson played Latham, an inept spy forever underestimating the usefulness of a good credit card.

These were one-minute ads, I hasten to add: another indication of Atkinson’s brilliance in a compact setting.

In all respects save his English accent, Atkinson’s Johnny English could be a clone of American television’s Maxwell Smart; not a bad satiric niche to occupy, given a sufficient sharp script.

And, conceptually, 2003’s Johnny English was a hoot, as were many of Atkinson’s bits within that film. His character’s interactions with long-suffering assistant/junior agent Bough (the amusingly deadpan Ben Miller) were wonderful: the preening and pontificating of supervillian Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, exercising a deliberately daft French accent) less so.

Director Peter Howitt too frequently s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d scenes, as if pausing for the raucous laughter earned by a live stage production. And nothing kills comedy faster than bad pacing.

Oliver Parker, a workmanlike director with little panache or originality, makes the same mistake with Johnny English Reborn. The pacing is off from the very first sequence, as we discover that English’s long absence from MI-7 (and the big screen) has resulted from a botched mission; he subsequently entered an isolated Tibetan monastery, the better to learn from his mistakes.

This prologue is simply slow.

English’s brutal training regimen — most notably an effort to, ah, strengthen his dangly bits — carries the whiff of bad Hollywood fratboy comedies: far lower on the scale than Atkinson’s finely honed physical skills deserve.

Things pick up once English is brought back to London, where MI-7 director Pamela Thornton (Gillian Anderson) reluctantly assigns him the task of uncovering the details behind a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier during upcoming Anglo-Chinese talks. It would appear that the conspiracy involves rogue elements from the CIA, KGB and MI-7.

English is assigned a new junior, Agent Tucker (Daniel Kaluuya, appropriately earnest), who naturally knows or intuits far more than English can or could; just as naturally, English invariably ignores his young associate’s excellent suggestions.

Longtime Bond fans will appreciate the way that scripters William Davies and Hamish McColl riff classic 007 sequences: the free-running foot chase that opened Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond, in Casino Royale; the iconic golf game between Connery’s Bond and Auric Goldfinger; and the mountaintop, third-act Swiss chalet setting from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The foot chase scene is both funny and clever, with English calmly managing to keep up with the much faster and more agile assassin (Williams Belle); the payoff takes place during a scrappy fist- and foot-fight between the two men on a floating dock, as a yacht-full of snobby Brits cheer enthusiastically.

Atkinson’s best moments come when he turns a set-up to his advantage, as when English unwisely fools with the various spy-type gadgets developed by the inventive Quartermain (Tim McInnerny). Another great scene occurs during a briefing, as English attempts to adjust the height of his chair, which thereafter slowly rises or falls uncontrollably.

Both scenes exploit Atkinson’s signature gag: his character’s flustered, panicked and unsuavely suave effort to appear as though everything is absolutely normal, despite the presence of one, two or 12 witnesses who clearly perceive the opposite. Things always go wrong for an Atkinson character, whether Bean, Blackadder or English; the comedy comes from the manner in which he attempts to recover.

English’s response of choice is urbane nonchalance: the dry, quietly British parallel to Pee Wee Herman’s defiant “I meant to do that!” Atkinson’s comic timing is superb, and his discomfiture, at such moments, is never less than sublime.

But, as stated before, movies require more than moments.

English’s relationship with MI-7 behavioral psychologist Kate Sumner (the suddenly ubiquitous Rosamund Pike) never goes anywhere. Somewhat bewilderingly, her talent for “reading” individuals via nanosecond computer imaging also doesn’t go anywhere, despite a third-act plot point that screams for its use.

Davies and McColl break one of the basic rules from Scripting 101: Never introduce a hammer in Act One, if you don’t intend to whack somebody with it in Act Three.

Or perhaps the blame lies elsewhere. This film’s press kit includes photos from scenes that obviously didn’t make the final cut, which suggests rather ham-handed eleventh-hour editing. Davies and McColl may not be at fault for the surviving narrative’s frequent inconsistencies.

On a smaller note, Ilan Eshkeri’s score isn’t nearly as much fun — or as successful a John Barry/David Arnold-style spoof of Bond music — as composer Ed Shearmur’s work on English’s first film. Now, that was a drolly flamboyant score.

This one’s merely ordinary, a word that too frequently characterizes this entire film. Wheelchair chases and other flashes of brilliance notwithstanding, nothing here will linger as a “You’ve got to see this scene” moment ... as opposed to so much of Atkinson’s shorter sketch work, which remains crystal-clear decades later.

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