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Johnny English

The James Bond mythology endures yet another gentle ribbing in Johnny English, a meek spy spoof based on a character Rowan Atkinson played in a series of popular British credit-card commercials. Already a huge hit overseas, the film casts Atkinson as the titular would-be super-spy, a daydreaming pencil-pusher who gets promoted to spy duty after all of England's real spies perish in an accident not unlike the one that led to the coronation of the American-born monarch in King Ralph. His preening arrogance unhindered by his massive incompetence, Atkinson sets about finding out who stole the crown jewels, a case that puts him into conflict with a French private-prison magnate (John Malkovich) with sinister designs on the throne and even darker plans for England. As Atkinson bumbles his way toward Malkovich, he's assisted by hyper-efficient assistant Ben Miller and the mysterious Natalie Imbruglia. Where James Bond films and the Austin Powers trilogy are essentially adolescent movies, obsessed with sex but not particularly comfortable with it, Johnny English can safely be called a boy's movie, largely asexual and imbued with a sort of goofy innocence. The film's premise invites the inevitable comparisons to Austin Powers, but it has more in common with the genial slapstick of the Naked Gun movies, which it steals from routinely. The casting of Malkovich as a French capitalist is rife with possibilities, but the actor's presence promises more than the film delivers. His character is largely used as an excuse for Francophobic gags notable mainly for what they say about the current sociopolitical climate, or about longstanding British attitudes. Anonymously directed by Sliding Doors' Peter Howitt and co-written by two of the hacks behind the last two James Bond movies, Johnny English doesn't give Atkinson much to work with, but the deft physical comedian makes the most of his mothballed material, particularly during the film's lively climax. Johnny English's international popularity may or may not translate here, but in a sequel-glutted summer, even a mildly amusing time-waster can't help but stand out.


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