Despite the halfhearted mystery propelling its plot, the primary question that floats above “Johnny English Strikes Again” is … “Why?”
It is true that its two predecessors — “Johnny English” and “Johnny English Reborn” — did remarkably well overseas. (Americans remained flatly immune.) So clearly, there are still loyal Rowan Atkinson fans out there. But if you’re determined to recycle one of his characters over and over, wouldn’t the beloved Mr. Bean or Blackadder make more sense than a James Bond parody made up for British credit card ads? At the very least, doesn’t he, and don’t his fans, deserve better material?
What’s particularly disappointing about this effort is the amount of talent wasted. In addition to the always-game Atkinson, we’ve got accomplished BBC comedy director David Kerr (“That Mitchell and Webb Look”) and screenwriter William Davies (“How to Train Your Dragon”). And also, rather curiously, Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon. The invaluable Thompson is, it must be said, an absolute delight as the frazzled British prime minister. New to the job, she’s just learned that a hacker plans to bring London to a standstill during an upcoming international summit.
Moreover, he’s exposed all of her secret agents before they can track him down. What to do? First, bring the best out of retirement. And when that plan fails (Gambon, we hardly knew you), there’s always Johnny English (Atkinson). The former M17 spy is as inept as ever, but at least he’s got a loyal aide in Bough (Ben Miller, “Paddington 2”). While the minister enlists the help of a Silicon Valley billionaire (Jake Lacy), English and Bough trace the hack to the South of France, where a dangerous double agent (Olga Kurylenko, “Quantum of Solace”) is lying in wait.
And what’s waiting for us? Linguistic mix-ups, exploding pens, pratfalls involving a suit of armor, and Black Eyed Peas punchlines. When Johnny proclaims, “We’re doing this mission old-school,” he means it.
There is humor to be mined from Atkinson’s fish-out-of-water persona, particularly since the traditional Bond formula feels so dated itself now. The 80s soundtrack (Wham!, Bananarama, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) plays up this approach, as do jokes about floppy disks and the ecological impracticality of an Aston Martin. The best gag is an extended scene in which an astounded English experiences virtual reality for the first time, allowing Atkinson to exploit his rubber-limbed lunacy.
Mostly, though, it’s the movie itself that feels dusty. Davies and Kerr settle, more often than not, for the easy joke rather than the smart one. When Johnny stubbornly refuses to fill the Aston Martin’s gas tank before a chase, can you guess what will happen next? When he’s given sleeping pills and adrenaline pills, which will he take at just the wrong time? And when all else fails, will you be remotely surprised by the appearance of his bare bum?
In fairness, more than a few kids giggled at that part during a recent screening. And adults may appreciate Atkinson’s earnest commitment, particularly considering how much Daniel Craig appears to dread each subsequent Bond installment. But as Craig knows, there comes a time when every man has to hang up his tux. When the suspenders snap, that time has arrived.