The new Johnny English film ploughs an almost counter culture commitment to undo the hard work of directors like James Gunn to make retro hits uncool again. Doing a generally good job at exposing Brexit-era Britain as being utterly out of its depth in the modern world, the material here is all very obvious but supplies a number of welcome giggles for a family audience.
The last time we encountered Britain’s worst spy – a comic creation of Rowan Atkinson – he was attacking the Queen in 2011’s Johnny English Reborn. It is, however, that film’s predecessor that this threequel most strongly resembles; the jokes are no sharper, the plot is innocuously identikit. Yet again, Agent English (Atkinson in Clouseau mode) is the last hope of a nation under attack and once more, in spite of undue self belief and smooth aspirations, he’s utterly hopeless. If an operation could go wrong, English is the nincompoop to ensure it absolutely does and with slapstick abandon to boot.
As the film opens, Inside No.9 director David Kerr finds English working as a geography teacher in a Lincolnshire public school, where he’s more concerned with imparting espionage than topographic skills. It’s a fun, School of Rock inspired, sequence that finds the former spy teaching juniors how to disarm a bomb and fly by zip wire, as their foregrounded headteacher assures prospective parents that his children are never put at risk in the school. With some impressive camouflage effects here, this is the film’s strongest stretch and could have easily led a more inventive plot.
When a hacker reveals the identity of every active British spy, just two weeks before the country hosts a G12 summit, a harassed Prime Minister (Emma Thompson on fine, Theresa May-esque, form) demands that the secret service ‘bring back an old one’. With most ex-agents ‘either dead, having hip operations or recovering from prostate surgery’, saving the day is planted in the incapable hands of Johnny English. His foe, once again, is a renowned national saviour that no one wants to believe is bad: Jack Lacy’s Silicon Valley, Kardashian-dating billionaire Jason Volta.
In spoofing terms, Strikes Again is a fairly redundant offering; no one makes this type of spy film anymore and even Bond’s been mocking the old fashioned essence of his own ludicrous past for some time now. Instead, Kerr’s film functions as genial family fun. Whilst many of the jokes and set pieces in William Davies’ script are predictable and intolerably lame – one cringe-worthy Saturday Night Fever sequence hits the pits – there’s some charm in just how lacking in edge this all is. When Ben Miller’s MI7 agent Bough picks up a jar of tablets – one half knock-out pills, the other high-energy – you know exactly where it’s going: ‘probably best labelling these’ he says. Yep.
Among the cast, familiar faces turn up left right and centre, with minute roles for Vicki Pepperdine, Charles Dance and Michael Gambon, and each seems to be having a good time. Against the odds, a VR montage in central London, flambé dining scene and gag involving magnetic boots all raise a chuckle. Go in expecting daft schmuck and you’ll get it. More importantly, you’ll probably enjoy it too.