The spy genre is incredibly well known and expansive. In fact, the tropes of the genre, and the James Bond films in particular, are so well worn that the spy spoof (even the James Bond spoof) is not new. Also not new is the comic genius of Rowan Atkinson. The star of Blackadder and Mr. Bean has repeatedly proven himself to be utterly brilliant through the years. Of course, not everything a good comic touches turns to gold, even in a well known and accepted genre, and in Atkinson’s second outing as Johnny English we get a perfect example of that.
The sequel to 2003’s Johnny English (also starring Atkinson), Johnny English Reborn features the titular hero returning to the spy game after being fired following a disastrous mission. Although he is happy to return, very few in the audience will be.
Most simply put, English is a bumbling oaf, a fool who manages to sail by mostly by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. That is not to say that he doesn’t have some skills, he most certainly does, but he’s still relatively unintelligent.
In a nutshell, that’s why this film fails to work. As a character, English is half-Clouseau, half-Bond and the film is half-spoof, half-straight. The result of this is that one minute you’re getting a perfect, empty replica of a high-gloss spy story and then the next you’re getting a moment from the worst of the Clouseau series. English even sports a Dreyfus-like eye twitch from time to time. Watching the film you’re never quite sure if you ought to be laughing at it or embarrassed for it – is what you’re seeing on screen yet another joke that has fallen flat or is it supposed to be one of the straight spy moments? It is regularly unclear.
What we have then is an unfortunate mishmash of nothingness. The plot is completely forgettable (it has something to do with a secret organization that wants to do something bad to someone… but there are other bad guys too so it’s not just the one enemy), virtually all of the jokes are without humor, and the straight spy stuff lacks any depth or feeling.
It is actually relatively surprising that the film could miss by so much. Besides Atkinson, the film sports a good supporting cast that has Gillian Anderson, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West, and Richard Schiff all putting in appearances. The film is directed by Oliver Parker (2002’s The Importance of Being Earnest) and features a screenplay by Hamish McColl (Mr. Bean’s Holiday).
With the film not knowing what it wants to be, does the blame lie in the direction? Does it lie in the script? Does it lie with the star, without whose backing almost assuredly it would never have gotten made? Perhaps it ought to be spread evenly across all sections.
Watching Johnny English Reborn one can almost see how it could have been a great, hysterical spy spoof. If a couple of the jokes had landed, if they had decided to focus wholly on making it funny rather than partially serious, it they had come up with something more outrageous. There are a lot of ways this film could have gone better, but none of those paths were taken and, consequently, what we have instead is something which falls completely flat. For all its polish and its cast, what the audience ends up with is a barely-there pseudo-spoof. It is a disappointment not simply because it isn’t very good, but because it has a cast and crew that should have been able to make it so.
The Blu-ray features a DVD and digital copy (Ultraviolet and iTunes!) as well as deleted/extended scenes, a commentary with Parker and McColl, and a wholly unfunny gag reel. There are also some decent featurettes, including a standard making-of as well as one on working with Atkinson. They don’t look like much beyond the standard studio EPK stuff, but the making-of is long enough that it actually provides more than regular pat answers. Particularly interesting is Atkinson’s discussion about the attempts to hang the comedy on a real story rather than just pushing a straight comedy. Of course, watching that discussion after the movie one can clearly see what they were trying for even if it misses completely. Shorter pieces on filming in Hong Kong and the film’s gadgets are less impressive.
Visually, the movie is striking. As stated, it’s a high-gloss film and it looks great on this Blu-ray release. It is full of vivid colors, has great blacks, and a good level of detail. The colors outside at night in Hong Kong really pop and amaze. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, too, is good. The film sports more of a spy score than a spoof score and it comes through beautifully. The surrounds are also well used in the action sequences (a harrowing helicopter flight is particularly good). It also is well-mixed, one won’t need to sit there with the volume controls in hand.
It is, in other words, a good release of a bad movie. One can’t escape the feeling that Johnny English Reborn should have been—ought to have been—a far better film than the one we’ve ended up with. And, while the result is a wild miss, it continually feels as though a few changes here and there would have radically altered the final product. Maybe that will happen if English gets another go-round.