We’re back in Blighty with the bumbling spy and, while Rowan Atkinson is still the master of physical comedy and the over enunciation of nonsense names, there is a nagging question underlying the latest antics of the hapless agent. Why is Johnny English returning after all these years?
It’s not an easy one to solve. It’s been seven years since the last instalment of the inept MI7 agent’s antics and 15 years since the original film hit our screens. The target audience of the first film are now in their mid-to-late twenties. At the time it really felt like Johnny English Reborn was the definitive reboot we needed to get a good dose of nostalgia. But now we’re going again, and while Johnny English Strikes Again is a blur of far-fetched plot and car chases, it does still have that wonderfully British slapstick humour that keeps the laughs coming. Maybe the answer is as simple as that.
There is a hacker on the loose. The identities of all MI7’s spies are compromised and the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) calls upon all retired personnel to work the case. MI7 assemble the only spies safe from the hack: a group of 70-somethings (among whom features Charles Dance) and Johnny English, pulled away from his day job as a geography teacher who secretly educates his pupils on the spy essentials, from bomb disposal to the correct use of a martini glass.
An incident with a spy pen leaves English the sole agent on the case. He reunites with Ben Miller’s loyal sidekick Bough for the first time since film number one (perhaps reason enough to add another to the franchise) and the pair set out to find the hacker, colliding with the mysterious, Bond Girl-esque Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko) en route. Behind the door to number 10, meanwhile, the Prime Minister is reaching out to charismatic Silicon Valley billionaire Mark Zuckerberg – I mean Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) – to assist with the breaches in England’s national security.
In 2011, Johnny English Reborn took us on a globe-hopping romp which saw English, having undergone extensive physical training in Tibet, attempting to thwart the killing of the Chinese Premier. In Johnny English Strikes Again, while English does partake in some European escapades, we’re largely back in the English capital and dealing with matters of domestic threat. Unlike the first film, however, the enemy is in cyberspace. The country is out of its depth (not just a statement, I’m talking about the film) and English is not au fait with the technology that is causing all the problems.
We’ve seen it before: the reboot where an old school protagonist begrudgingly faces a world of apps and gadgets. That’s not to say it doesn’t work narratively speaking. Indeed, it’s always been through a combination of technical ineptitude and fluke that English succeeds, it just feels a bit like a franchise forcing itself into a world where it doesn’t really belong anymore. While the gags go down well and the slapstick humour is as funny as it ever was, something about the film just doesn’t sit right in 2018. While English eschews all modern tech, he’s still badmouthing the French at every turn and is shocked to hear that Bough’s new wife works on a naval ship as a captain, and not as a “navy secretary”. He’s not moving with the times. It’s not shocking or offensive though, just an indicator that the film doesn’t really belong, and for all its laughs it feels somewhat tired.
Emma Thompson does a sound Theresa May impersonation as she paces the corridors of number 10 in a series of pantsuits trying to keep the hacking scandal under control. It would have been entertaining to see more from the Prime Minister, here, as not only were the announcements of the latest hacks rather amusing (“they’re re-routing all the trains in the UK to Bristol Temple Meads!”) there was also something allegorical going on in these fictional halls of power. Not that director David Kerr would have known at time of shooting, but the embarrassing outing of all MI7 agents rang awkwardly true to the recent security breach debacle in which the Conservative Party Conference’s official app was hacked by the public. There is something quite comforting in poking a bit of fun at it all. There is also something quite comforting about having Emma Thompson in charge of everything.
The mishaps along the way are absolutely chuckle-worthy, but ultimately the film feels like a series of funny sketch ideas that were assembled before a plot was. The laughs are genuine, but it’s difficult to believe that the film’s younger viewers are grasping the overarching narrative as we switch between a G12 summit, the home of a software billionaire, Downing Street and a naval submarine. It’s plot and it’s placing is odd, but if you can get past that, get ready for a laugh a minute.
Johnny English Strikes Again opens in UK cinemas from October 5th.