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'Johnny English'

Clumsy but not Smart

Friday, July 18, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Johnny English, you're no Inspector Clouseau -- or even Maxwell Smart. Those are high standards, to be sure, and the spy spoof "Johnny English" has its share of amusing moments. But the title role belongs to Rowan Atkinson, a virtuoso physical comic. In one of his greatest sketches, he must change into swim trunks without benefit of privacy. He dons them over a business suit and then removes the suit from under the trunks. You have to see it to believe it.

 
 
"Johnny English"

RATING: PG for comic nudity, some crude humor and language.
STARRING: Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich, Natalie Imbruglia.
DIRECTOR: Peter Howitt.

   
 

OK, he's still no Clouseau, the clumsy French detective played by the incomparable Peter Sellers in the "Pink Panther" movie series. But comparisons to Smart, the bungling Don Adams spy in the old TV series "Get Smart," are apt. The antithesis of his name, Smart persevered through sheer cockiness (and the help of his partner, Agent 99).

Johnny English, a low-level desk hound in British Intelligence, manages to get the country's entire fleet of super agents killed before the opening credits roll. With no one else left, spy boss Pegasus (Tim Pigott-Smith) assigns him to guard the crown jewels, which are being put on public display. Naturally, he fails.

But Johnny doesn't give up, no matter how badly he screws up. And he's figured out the identity of the culprit behind the theft of the jewels -- Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), a French businessman who has endeared himself to the British royal family.

Of course, Johnny pegs him for all the wrong reasons -- chiefly, an anti-French bias. Moviegoers will suspect Pascal just because Malkovich plays him, wearing collar-length gray hair that makes him look as prissy as his accent sounds.

So the villain plays effortlessly for laughs while the hero works hard at being taken seriously. Johnny loves playing spy and earnestly tries his best. But his savoir, far from being faire, is bloody awful. The fool rushes in where wise men know better than to tread. But as he stumbles into trouble, he also occasionally stumbles upon a clue -- or his prey.

Alas, the gags aren't particularly inspired or original -- after 40 years of spy spoofs ranging from "Our Man Flint" to "Austin Powers," what's left to do that's new? Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have written two actual James Bond films -- maybe the problem is that those have, to a degree, become parodies of themselves as well.

Because Johnny tries to be suave, Atkinson underplays the role (unlike Adams), which would work if there were anything subtle about jokes involving bathroom humor, men speaking gibberish, Johnny treating mourners at a funeral like the criminals he thinks they are or the Archbishop of Canterbury's bare arse -- as I said, you have to see it to believe it.

But as I also said, the movie has its moments. When Johnny gets a ring that injects truth serum mixed up with one that injects a disabling drug, the resulting chaos earns a few laughs. A chase scene with Johnny in his souped-up Aston-Martin hanging by a crane over the side of a tow truck chasing a car full of bad guys manages to be both exciting and ridiculous.

And the climax, in which Johnny must stop Pascal's evil plan during one of England's most sacred ceremonies, in which he embarrasses both himself and everyone present, offers Atkinson the opportunity for some physical comedy at last, which is well staged by director Peter Howitt ("Sliding Doors").

Johnny gets yeoman's work from his cohorts -- Ben Miller as loyal (and competent) subordinate Bough and singer Natalie Imbruglia as Lorna Campbell, an international woman of mystery.

Together, they mine just enough giggles from this all-too-familiar lode to make you wish the movie was worthy of Atkinson at his best.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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