Like the banshee of the Bond franchise, appearing whenever that storied franchise finds itself mired in a creative or legal quagmire, Johnny English is back, summoned no doubt but the ongoing dithering over Bond 25.
After a cyber-attack exposes the identities of all of the active undercover British agents, MI7 is forced to turn to its roster of retired agents in order to save the country, leading them eventually to Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson). Can he expose the master hacker before the ongoing cyber-attacks destroy Britain completely?
More than either of the previous Johnny English movies, this feels like a series of skits (ranging from mildly amusing to tediously strung out) linked together by a threadbare plot which owes more to a myopically rose-tinted view of the good old days of the past, before all these new-fangled ideas and innovations came along and ruined the halcyon golden Britain of the past. In framing its central conflict as a battle between the future, personified in Jake Lacey’s brash but two-dimensional swaggering tech billionaire Jason Volta, and the past – English himself, his petrol-guzzling Aston Martin (okay, no complaints there) and a hankering for a romanticised English past (including frequent call-backs to the British Empire), the film sets out its little Englander credentials as carefully as Q branch would lay out the gadgets for a forthcoming mission. Even Ben Miller’s Bough is reinstated in favour of Daniel Kaluuya’s sidekick from “Johnny English Reborn” and although Kaluuya’s star has probably risen too high recently to return to that kind of role, it’s a disappointingly retrograde step reducing the cast’s diversity in a film which explicitly sets out to push the idea that only old white men can save us.
Atkinson’s third sojourn as English blurs the lines between the character and Mr Bean more than ever before and while there’s no denying Atkinson’s talent for physical comedy and dim-witted nonsense, the schtick feels more tired than ever this time and you may find yourself pining for the sharper wit of Blackadder than more of this bumbling ineptitude.
As usual with this franchise, it assembles a supporting cast better than it deserves, with Charles Dance, Edward Fox and Michael Gambon popping in for cameos and Emma Thompson doing a wonderful turn as a Theresa May-esque Prime Minister (or at least how Theresa May probably sees herself) desperately trying to seal an agreement which she believes will save the country while all around plot against her. Olga Kurlyenko gamely tries her best in a deeply cliched role but at least shows a glimmer of talent for broad comedy which deserves a chance to shine in a better vehicle than this.
Borrowing gags from “The Naked Gun” and “Pitch Perfect 3” of all places, “Johnny English Strikes Again” ultimately demonstrates the futility and fragility of clinging on to past glories even as it tries to suggest that’s the best choice for the future. It’s snide and dismissive attitude towards technology and Millennial affinity for technology just comes off as mean-spirited and short-sighted although it does have an oxymoronic hard-on for electric cars for some reason. Still, there are enough gags and set-pieces to keep the younger and older ends of the demographic bell curve amused (judging by the screening I want to) and 12-year-old Mertmas absolutely loved it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at least a few times and there are moments which remind us, if we needed reminding, that when Atkinson gets the right material, he’s a comic genius but let us hope that “You Only Live Thrice” becomes Johnny English’s cinematic epitaph.