After foiling a plot to seize the British crown in his first self-titled movie outing, incompetent British secret agent Johnny English is back, and must now prevent the assassination of the Chinese premier, in the expectedly silly but thoroughly entertaining Johnny English Reborn. Treading much the same ground as the 2003 original, the sequel film combines James Bond spoofing with utterly predictable physical humour, yet thanks to the vaudevillian talents of leading man Rowan Atkinson, it does so in a way that translates as amusing rather than gratingly annoying. That there is not a single poo joke, talking animal or cross-dressing celebrity to be found in Johnny English Reborn already sets it apart from a large majority of recent American family comedies. That it is genuinely funny seems almost like an added bonus.
Don’t get me wrong – this film is far from high brow, and in fact, most of the humour involves someone accidentally getting hurt, usually as a direct result of the protagonist’s overconfidence, stupidity, or in most cases both. But while there are crotch-hits aplenty, director Oliver Parker rarely plumbs the ultra-low depths of films like Grown Ups or Zookeeper. Instead, he sets up his visual gags minutes in advance, and let audiences laugh in the knowledge that they know the outcome of the joke long before English even realises how badly he’s stuffed things up.
Much of the films success must be attributed to leading man Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean, Rat Race), whose talent for facial contortionism, over-the-top physicality and comedic line delivery ensures that there is an endearing quality to English’s ineptitude, making him a hero we can root for in spite of – or perhaps, because of – his buffoonery. The rest of the cast don’t really have much to do beyond reacting to English’s latest cock-up, but Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Dominic West (The Wire) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day – once a Bond girl herself, now falling for a very different kind of secret agent) are fun in their mostly straight faced roles. Special mention must also be given to Daniel Kaluuya (Skins), whose performance as English’s bright eyed young sidekick Agent Tucker is filled with charming enthusiasm.
And lest you be mislead, it should be pointed out that there are at least one or two moments in Johnny English Reborn that qualify as legitimately clever. A Hong Kong chase sequence goofily parodies the recent trend seen in films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum of utilizing parkour is action scenes, while a hilarious nod to corporate sponsorship and movie product placement sees the British Intelligence Service rechristened as the Toshiba British Intelligence Service.
Ultimately Johnny English Reborn is more “silly” than it is “dumb”. It’s a PG film that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence, but rather credits them for being so much smarter than the bumbling fool they are watching on screen. And sitting in the theatre beforehand, witnessing trailers for the likes of Jack and Jill, Spy Kids 4D and Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either), it seems that in the realm of family comedies, not insulting your audience is becoming an increasingly rare thing.