Forty years ago a mild, inoffensive British spy spoof like “Johnny English” might have attracted a substantial American audience, but in 2003, after two “Austin Powers” installments, this low-keyed takeoff on the James Bond franchise–and not even the Pierce Brosnan updating but the Sean Connery original–is like something that comes to theatres courtesy of a time warp rather than a projector. Many will compare rubber-faced Rowan Atkinson’s turn as an incorrigibly self-confident, lovably klutzy secret agent to Peter Sellers’ classic Inspector Clouseau, and as “Mr. Bean” showed, the British farceur is certainly an able physical comedian who probably could have carried off the sort of elaborate slapstick skits that Sellers indulged in. Unfortunately, here he’s hampered by a script that owes more to the old “Get Smart” TV series than to the Pink Panther pictures. Johnny may have a dourly serious assistant in the Graham Stark mold–an intense but naive young fellow called Bough, played with a suitably blank expression by Ben Miller. But he also has a curvaceous female associate in Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia), who’s an Agent 99 sort of character. And his bumbling routines don’t have the protracted complexity of those featured in Blake Edwards’ movies. They’re more attenuated and obvious, very like the broadly silly bits that Maxwell Smart used to stumble his way through. The lack of really inspired material hamstrings Atkinson (just as it did in “Rat Race”–the big-screen material that’s thus far suited him best, if you except the features based on his TV work, remains the clerical cameo in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”).
That doesn’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t elicit some chuckles with his defensive reactions to the disasters he unwittingly causes. The trouble is that’s about all that “Johnny English” has to offer–occasional smiles, mostly arising from the interplay between Atkinson and Miller. Otherwise the picture gives us a succession of scenes that have something, though often not much, to do with the efforts of English–an inept underling in the intelligence service promoted when all the “real” spies die as a result of his own incompetence–to foil the scheme of effete French billionaire Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) to secure the English throne. Malkovich wanders through the proceedings sporting a diffident smirk, a massive wig and a French accent so outrageously overdone that it immediately joins the barely recognizable Russian one he affected in “Rounders” in the Jon Voight Hall of Shame (remember “Anaconda”?). Imbruglia, meanwhile, is pleasant enough as the Interpol agent who joins forces with our hero, though frankly it’s inexplicable why she should find him attractive in the slightest.
But one can’t be too hard on “Johnny English.” It may be slight and bland, and it’s directed rather lazily by Peter Howitt, but it’s harmless (the grossest moments involves the agent crawling through a sewage pipe connected to a lavatory–with predictable results, and a scene that effectively has the audience mooned by the archbishop of Canterbury); and, at 87 minutes, it’s mercifully brief. Moviegoers of the opinion that contemporary pictures are much too violent and racy should be pleased with this easygoing cinematic trip into the benign, unthreatening mood of the early sixties. Others will, however, find it rather tedious despite Atkinson’s oafish charm.