Johnny English Strikes Again

Brandon Richardson | 20/09/2018

Rowan Atkinson resurrects his titular character returns for a third roll of the dice in Johnny English Strikes Again, showing us how his classic comedic style holds up in the modern, technology-oriented world.


The British Secret Service is brought to its knees as the identity of every secret agent is stolen by an unknown mastermind. With their entire workforce compromised, they are left with no choice but to turn retired-spy-turned-geography-teacher Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), who has spent his 7-year hiatus training and recruiting school children without their parents’ knowledge. While the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) turns to multi-billionaire, tech genius Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) to tighten up the nation’s security, English teams up with trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) to track down the mysterious villain and stop them in their tracks.


At 7 years between drinks, Johnny English Strikes Again arrives at a time where the goofy antics of the previous two outings have likely been long forgotten. Indeed, the landscape of “what makes successful comedy” has likely shifted so much in that time that one may question whether the comedy of Rowan Atkinson, who is so well known and loved for the physicality of his performance, would still draw the kind of crowds that made the first two installments such box office successes despite disappointing critical reception. Judging by the frequent raucous laughter of the audience at the preview screening we attended, Johnny English’s latest outing is likely to find favour with his fans. However, it is likely enjoyment of this film is hinged on two factors: how much Mr Bean one has watched in decades gone by, and how much one is able to tolerate his pure, unadulterated incompetence.  


Incompetence, and its ensuing antics, has always been the crux of the Johnny English films. In this installment, the focus is largely on how the magic of technology seems to escape the old guard (often a constant source of amusement/frustration for younger people attempting to counsel their technophobe parents). This is most effective when English undergoes a virtual reality training program using a headset, but ends up attacking the good people of London with breadsticks. It is this same incompetence that results in perhaps the most nostalgic Bean-esque moment, where we are treated to all of Atkinson’s quirky physicality as he dances to Darude’s Sandstorm, all while he unwittingly avoids death from the sneaking hand of Russian spy Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko). While we are able to set aside our disbelief for Atkinson’s character (indeed, we expect it given his comedic history), it is hard to forgive the ineptitude of just about everyone else in this film.


While the ensemble of cast members put on a good show (including cameos from some true British cinema heavyweights), there is only so much stupidity one can tolerate from someone meant to be intelligent enough to be Prime Minister. While Emma Thompson is excellent (as she always is), there is something unspeakably frustrating about her character’s ignorance to the blinding obvious when it clearly outweighs that of the main character that is built around that sense of “ignorance is bliss” generated from being so unaware of one’s foibles. The same issue extends to many of English’s friends and foes. What humour is to be had would much better be derived from contrasting Atkinson’s insanity to a world operating in a realistic manner. Unfortunately, when everyone else is only marginally more capable than English, it detracts from the shock value, which takes its toll given that the comedic style is already prone to fatiguing over feature length (even at a lean 88 minutes).


Ultimately, David Kerr has managed to do a solid job with the franchise. The balance of hits and misses probably tilts in favour of the former, making Johnny English Strikes Again just worth the ticket price. Just.


Those in favour of Atkinson’s comedic stylings are likely to disagree, and they are welcome to enjoy the film as such. However, to many, this is likely to be filed away as the kind of light entertainment that made the first two films enjoyable but forgettable.