It’s been 15 years since comedian Rowan Atkinson grabbed his licence to kill as bumbling secret agent Johnny English. The character is a cross between James Bond, Maxwell Smart, Inspector Clouseau and Inspector Gadget. Now Atkinson reprises the role in this third film in the series. Johnny English Strikes Again is also the strongest film in the series. It spoofs the tropes of the Bond franchise with its gadgets, fast cars, exotic locations, beautiful but lethal ladies, and a villain hellbent of controlling the world.
A cyber-attack exposes the identity of all of Britain’s spies around the world, thus rendering Her Majesty’s Secret Service impotent. The Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) suggests that the agency recall some retired agents who will be unknown. Amongst them is English, now working as a teacher at a boarding school. Rather than adhere to the curriculum, English also trains his pupils in the covert arts of espionage. While waiting in a study, English inadvertently knobbles three veteran agents (played by Charles Dance, Michael Gambon and Edward Fox in uncredited cameos) and is – by default – chosen for this dangerous mission.
English is out of his depth in this new brave world of espionage. Spies now rely on technology rather than brute force. He is reunited with his weapons boffin Angus Bough (Ben Miller, making a welcome return after being absent from Johnny English Reborn in 2011). But can English master the new technology to unmask the mysterious hacker?
The trail to uncover the identity of the cyber-saboteur takes English to France, back to London and eventually to a castle on the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland. They also encounter seductive Russian agent Ophelia Bulletova (Olga Kurylenko, a former “Bond girl”). Her loyalties are uncertain as she seems to both help and hinder English.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister calls in Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), a smarmy Silicon Valley billionaire and virtual reality expert who offers his service and advice – for a price of course.
William Davies, who has written the previous two films in the series, provides the screenplay. He knows the character well and brings an internal consistency to the material. Apparently, Davies wrote the plot but left it to Atkinson to write the scenes featuring the more physical humour. However, the script telegraphs many of the gags. The formulaic plot is a little predictable and this parody of the Bond canon occasionally comes across as a little tired. This is the debut feature for David Kerr, a respected director of television comedies. He keeps things moving along at a brisk pace.
The role of English perfectly suits Atkinson’s talents for over-the-top mugging and physical comedy. He has plenty of opportunities to execute some clever pratfalls. He brings a wonderful mix of smarmy arrogance and buffoonish antics to the role. A highlight is a wonderful extended sequence in which English uses virtual reality to check out the criminal’s lair, but which sees him venture out onto the streets of London where he causes mayhem.
Thompson demonstrates great comic timing and seems to be enjoying herself. Miller essentially plays straight man to Atkinson’s bumbling spy, and the pair create a wonderful dynamic. Lacy provides charm for his villainous Volta, but he lacks any real sense of menace. Kurylenko brings a strong physical presence to her role, which draws on her Bond appearance in Quantum of Solace.
If Johnny English Strikes Again is the final instalment in the series, then Atkinson ensures it ends on a high note. This is enjoyable and very funny stuff mainly thanks to Atkinson’s comic timing. It’s also a vast improvement on the disappointing Johnny English Reborn.
Director: David Kerr
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Ben Miller, Jack Lacy, Olga Kurylenko, Emma Thompson
Release Date: 20 September 2018
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television