Johnny English (U.K. 2003) ** 1/2 or ***
Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Edward Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Mark Huffam. Cast : Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), et al. A Universal release. 88 minutes. PG
In the post-Python era the champion has been Rowan Atkinson with his sight-and-sound "Blackadder" series (mostly in the 1980s) and those sight-sound-but-minimal speech "Mr. Bean" episodes (mostly in the 1990s). In the U.K. Atkinson is also famous for additional works but those are unfamiliar to Americans.
"Johnny English" is a spoof. To spoof anything is fraught with dangers. To spoof other spoofs is asking for big trouble. Here we get a combination of James Bond flicks and Inspector Clouseau ("Pink Panther") farces.
As the best of U.K.'s Secret Service agents are decimated, fumbler-bumbler Johnny English who is at the bottom of the totem pole is given the task to protect the Crown Jewels during an exhibition in the Tower of London. He fails, of course. But he is tenacious in his search, along with his super-sober companion Bough (Ben Miller) of the treasure. This leads to arch-villain Pascal Sauvage, an evil billionaire Frenchman played by John Malkovich.
The presence of Malkovich is one reason to see this film. The Illinois-born thespian must be a darling of the European film industry, and he certainly loves Europe. He has played in movies by Bertolucci, Antonioni, de Oliveira, Schlondorff, Ruiz, Besson, Cavani and other Class A Continentals. And when he plays French people (as in the mini-series "Napoleon," or "Les Miserables," or in the super-French feature "Time Regained") he speaks heavily American-accented French and gets away with it.
Mr. Sauvage is wealthy enough to have no need for the Crown Jewels, but logic gets suspended here as in every foot of the movie. His more ambitious agenda is to dethrone Queen Elizabeth and become the King of England. That the throne should be his is based on some obscure, centuries-old lineage documents.
It is all very, very, very broad stuff, no matter where you turn or what turns up. The rubber-faced and -bodied agent Johnny is no 007. He really is 000000 as a sleuth. He is incredibly high-tech -a la Bond -and not low-tech like Clouseau. Atkinson overdoes the grimaces, the pratfalls and the repetition of certain gags such as a gun that always discards its bullets instead of shooting them. And more.
The nonsense of the picture is not put together with the needed rational "cement" - and that can get a bit boring. On the other hand, Johnny does have two solid companions. His calm, no-fuss Assistant Bough, and the initially mysterious Natalie Imbruglia (as Lorna Campbell), an Australian beauty in her first movie. Departing from James Bondism, she is never naked or semi-nude. I don't know if this is a good thing among the bad ones or a bad thing among the good ones.
There is a third helper in the film, and that's the fact that contrary to custom for such works, instead of weakening in its second half "Johnny English" improves. And it reaches its high (and best) point when Monsieur Sauvage in Westminster Abbey, about to be crowned (as Pascal the First?) by the Archbishop of Canterbury (whose bare behind was displayed earlier -don't ask) is foiled by Our Hero.
Another asset is the use, in chases, of a superb sports car which I could not identify with certainty. However, it is most likely an Aston Martin, given the fact that Mr. Atkinson collects them, races them and writes about autos in magazines.
It comes as no surprise that the movie has its share of weaknesses, especially when compared to the near-perfection of many "chapters" in the "Blackadder" and "Mr. Bean" series. Here Mr. Atkinson is competing against himself. Expanding half-hour episodes or two-reelers into feature-length movies, is very tricky. Consider the 1997 movie "Bean" (90 minutes). It was quite disappointing. "Johnny English" however, warts and all, has enough madness and surreal nonsense to make quite enjoyable.