It sounds like an easy layup: Rowan Atkinson inserted into James Bond-style adventures, rubber-faced and disaster-prone where your Sean Connerys and Daniel Craigs are steely and sexy. Maybe Johnny English could have been Atkinson’s own Pink Panther series; the title of Johnny English Strikes Again certainly bears that out, sharing a construction with the fourth Peter Sellers Clouseau comedy.
The Johnny English series, now technically a trilogy, doesn’t precisely fail in either of those areas, in part because there’s nothing precise about it. The movies do place Atkinson’s bumbling secret agent Johnny English into Bond-on-a-budget plots, and like the later Pink Panther films, those plots have thinned out to the point where they’re just pretext for Atkinson’s pratfalls. But never has a Johnny English movie really caught fire, beyond the scenes where things accidentally catch fire because of English’s slapstick boobery.
Johnny English Strikes Again might actually come closer to success than its predecessors, if only by default. At very least, it proceeds unencumbered by excess story machinations. Strikes Again is a Bond parody that betrays little knowledge of the series past the late ’90s and features an approximation of international intrigue that often lingers around a few simple sets (a hotel bar, an office, a generic and sparsely furnished bad-guy compound), in service of a story so inconsequential that its details are sometimes piped in over generic overhead driving-car shots. It’s slapdash but painlessly lacking in bombast. The filmmakers’ lack of discipline in putting together a proper style parody of Bond means they can also avoid the extra half-hour of country-hopping padding that accompanies most Bond pictures. In other words, be thankful for small favors.
Johnny English almost doesn’t need to bother with Bond anyway, as it’s formed its own set of rituals. Per series tradition, a catastrophe—in this case a cyber-attack outing the identities of Britain’s top agents at a fictionalized MI7—leaves the dim and clumsy English as his country’s last line of defense, assigned to track down this high-tech terrorist. As in the first film, English is joined by milquetoast sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) for a lame double act. As in the second, he crosses bath with a former Bond girl, here Quantum Of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko as a mysterious maybe-double agent, and is supervised by a more distinguished actress (Emma Thompson, playing a desperate prime minister). The movie’s version of a new wrinkle involves the still-limber Atkinson’s advancing age: English is positioned, to little amusing effect, as accidentally wise in avoiding newer developments in technology. Not counting spy gadgets, mind, which he happily packs up on his mission, but regular consumer technology, like mobile phones. Is there something funny about a spy comfortable with wall-climbing magnet boots but intimidated by an iPhone? Maybe, but Johnny English Strikes Again doesn’t really find the gag there, even with a tech billionaire (Jake Lacy) as its not-at-all-secret villain.
There are workable gags elsewhere, where their execution doesn’t depend on satire or point of view. Veteran TV director David Kerr stages some crisp background gags. Often the highlights of Johnny English films—Atkinson getting doped with muscle relaxants in the first film, or messing with a conference-room chair lever in the second—are too small to be even called set pieces, and that’s true of an amusing bit here where English makes a mess out of a simple drink order. But there’s also an extended scene where English trains on a VR machine and wanders off its moving platform, wreaking havoc on the real world as he thinks he’s fighting virtual bad guys. It’s funny in part because it revives a bit of the sly malice that enlivens some of Atkinson’s Mr. Bean bits (innocent bystanders get knocked around), without tipping over into violent mayhem (they aren’t seriously hurt).
The film’s PG mildness makes Johnny English Strikes Again a kid-friendly affair, signaled by English’s day job as a beloved teacher at a posh primary school. As such, maybe younger fans of bumbling slapstick will enjoy the movie, if they’ve already gone through the complete Get Smart, Police Squad!, and Peter Sellers’ Pink Panthers. Then again, a quick look at any of those series will throw the shortcomings of this one into sharper relief.