Out of all the unlikely sequels to materialize over recent years, Johnny English Reborn would have to be the most unexpected. While 2003’s “Johnny English” enjoyed a healthy run at the box office, it endured a harsh reception from both critics and audiences, and sequel prospects were never really discussed. Arriving eight years after its undeservedly bashed predecessor, Johnny English Reborn is not exactly a laugh-a-minute return to form for our beloved Rowan Atkinson, but it is a rather solid effort all-round that scores a few good belly laughs while pulling together an interesting plot which wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond movie.
Once MI7’s top spy, Johnny English (Atkinson) goes into exile in a remote Buddhist temple after one of his missions goes tragically wrong. Years later, the Chinese premier is scheduled to visit London, and MI7 has learned of a credible threat to the premier’s life. Much to the chagrin of MI7 head Pamela Thornton (Anderson) and pretty much everyone else, the service is left with little choice but to draft the unorthodox Johnny English back into action at the request of an informant. Brought back to London after spending years training his body and mind, English is equipped with an array of gadgets and given a young partner (Kaluuya) as he sets out to take down a mysterious organization of international assassins.
It has been four years since Rowan Atkinson was last seen in a theatrical motion picture (in 2007’s “Mr. Bean’s Holiday“), and the man’s presence has frankly been missed. Atkinson has an unparalleled comic energy, and it’s always a pleasure to witness his brand of humor on the big screen. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that Hamish McColl’s screenplay is not quite up to Atkinson’s brilliance. Hackneyed slapstick and gross-out gags constitute too much of the humor and only a few of these silly jokes actually land. Put against other spy spoofs (the original Get Smart TV show, the riotous Austin Powers series), Johnny English Reborn is serviceable, but the best laughs are too scattershot. And instead of going for the subversive, too often the filmmakers went for the easiest, cheapest gags, not to mention there are a few scenes that are more uncomfortable than funny due to their blatant predictability. It’s doubtful you’ll even remember much of the comedy a day after you watch the film, let alone quote lines. On the other hand, though, the climax is full of belly-laughs and impressive action — it’s almost worth the price of admission alone, and it almost compensates for the more lethargic stretches.
While Johnny English Reborn is not quite as bubbly and charming as its predecessor, Oliver Parker’s direction — and the filmmaking in general — is skillful all-round. One of the best creative decisions was to take the James Bond parody one step further and produce a Bond-esque opening title sequence guaranteed to have viewers in fits of laughter. Another plus is that the film at times feels like a big-budget James Bond blockbuster, especially during the large-scale climax set in the Swiss Alps. The special effects, too, are impressive considering the modest budget. Interestingly, the tone for this follow-up is wholly different to that of its predecessor — while the first film was a hammy, entirely non-serious farce with nothing much at stake, Johnny English Reborn could’ve passed for a James Bond film or a serious action-thriller if not for English’s daftness. The jury is out as to which tone is better, but both styles work to an extent.
Rowan Atkinson is the only notable cast member of the original film to return here. Disappointingly, Johnny’s brilliant original sidekick Bough (played by Ben Miller) did not return for this sequel. However, Johnny’s new partner — played by the young Daniel Kaluuya — is a decent enough replacement, and his work is solid. Dominic West (“Punisher: War Zone“) is also effective as fellow MI7 agent Simon, while an amiable Gillian Anderson features as the head of MI7. Also in the cast is Rosamund Pike as the token love interest, playing behavioral psychologist Kate. Pike is great here, and it’s undeniably fun to witness her tackle such a character almost ten years after she was an actual Bond girl in 2002’s “Die Another Day.” Pike played her role absolutely straight here — much like West, Anderson and Kaluuya — which is a huge asset since nobody looks as if they are in on the joke. Despite all of this talent, Johnny English Reborn is ultimately Atkinson’s show, and the man’s talent as a performer is on full display here. Atkinson also executive produced the film which shows that he was dedicated to the project, and this dedication is exemplified in his completely game performance as the lovable titular buffoon.
For finicky audiences who can temper their expectations, Johnny English Reborn should prove to be an enjoyable enough night at the movies. It’s an all-round mixed bag, though. The film could have and should have been funnier and more creative, but it has a few laughs, the filmmaking is for the most part solid, and it’s nice to see Atkinson back in action. Stick around for the end credits, too — one of the best gags was saved for last.