The recipe of Rowen Atkinson’s Johnny English spy spoof is obvious: it’s James Bond by way of Inspector Clouseau. But while Atkinson is a nimble physical comic with a ridiculously goofy rubber face, this kind of take-off was already well past its prime when the film’s predecessor appeared in 2003, and it now comes across as positively musty.
“Reborn” begins with English holed up in a Tibetan monastery learning self-control, having been ejected from MI7 for having loused up a mission in Madagascar. After some tired sight gags he’s called back when an old contact with important information insists that he’ll give it only to Johnny. The tip leads to English and his assistant (Daniel Kaluuya) being put on the trail of a group of assassins that supposedly includes a mole in the agency itself.
The plot gets very complicated, of course, with English himself being fingered as the turncoat at one stage. But it would be a fruitless—and pointless—enterprise to attempt to paraphrase it. Everything merely serves as an occasion for Atkinson to indulge in slapstick pratfalls and other bits of business. Individually they’re well enough executed, but they tend to be overextended, and lacking in the Rube Goldberg ingenuity that marked the Blake Edwards-Peter Sellers routines in the Pink Panther movies. By comparison Atkinson comes across like a second-rate imitation, more akin to Steve Martin’s Clouseau than to the classic version, though happily a few of his sketch moments work—like a very simple, rather elegant one involving a conference room chair that glides upward and downwards as English tries desperately to ignore its movement. The fact is that Atkinson is far more winning in his other slapstick identity—that of the clueless Mr. Bean—and the episodes involving that character are more inventive, too.
This is pretty much a one-man show, but the rest of the cast is populated by talented people who aren’t especially well employed. Gillian Anderson is cast in the Judi Dench role as the head of MI7, managing a passable English accent, and Dominic West is smooth and oily as an old agent chum of Johnny’s who’s clearly a rotter from his first entrance. Everyone else has pretty much no more than a walk-on, with Richard Schiff, for example, just spouting a few lines before taking a bullet. (Of course, one could argue that he was lucky to make a hasty departure.)
“Johnny English Reborn” is attractively mounted, with even some of the obviously tacky studio sets (like the monastery courtyard) being used for comic purposes. But overall it comes across as a sleepy retread of a tired formula that even Atkinson’s skill at slapstick tomfoolery can’t salvage.