Johnny English
directed by Peter Howitt
(Universal, 2003)

John Malkovich has played just about anything you can imagine in his 23-year film career, from the blind pea snapper in Places in the Heart to his own brain in Being John Malkovich. Yet never before had he -- or anyone else who comes to mind -- played a French prison magnate who underwrites a refurbishing of the English crown jewels as part of an elaborate plot to seize the throne and turn Britain into a penal colony.

And yet -- no surprise to Malkovich fans -- he might very well have succeeded, had it not been for Johnny English.

English (Rowan Atkinson) is a quick-thinking, sharp-shooting, stiff-upper-lip British spy guy who only has to look at a woman to have her. In his dreams, that is. In real life, English is a pencil pusher -- a researcher for the real secret agent men -- until the day when all of England's superspies are mysteriously wiped out.

OK, it's not all that mysterious, but it is hilarious (cow mooing and all). And the fact that all the deaths could be traced rather easily to English's desk doesn't stop his boss, Pegasus (Tim Pigott-Smith), from assigning the pencil pusher to the crown jewels case.

What follows, not surprisingly, is a spoof of nearly every 007 film on record, beginning with the inevitable coat-rack gag and progressing swiftly to the arrival of femme fatale Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia), a superspy who could give Halle Berry a few lessons in female Bonding.

There's the inevitable car chase as well, but this time between a hearse hauling away the stolen jewels and the tow truck hauling away English's Austin, which was illegally parked. (Isn't it about time they towed one of these guys?)

And there's English's use of arcane knowledge to get -- or try to get -- himself out of the tight spots he invariably gets himself into. What other spies could reference the shaman throat warblers of the Guatemala Delta or replicate the chant of Bedouin monks as a kind of sonar device to navigate his way down a pitch-black tunnel?

What helps English rise above other spy spoofs, though, is Atkinson's performance. Time and again, his talent for visual humor complements the reasonably witty script: witness the tap dance he does on the coffin when he thinks he's caught the crooks trying to stash the crown jewels, or his truncated lunch in the sushi joint. Both elevate one-gag scenes into delightful set pieces.

In the end, Johnny English accomplishes all it sets out to do: it lampoons the secret agent genre, especially the Bonds, with amiable humor and offers Atkinson a chance to display his talent for verbal as well as his visual gags.

It's well-plotted and well-paced and features an excellent supporting cast: everyone from English's assistant, Bough (Ben Miller) to the old man in the hospital English mistakes for one of Sauvage's victims ("They took my blood!") has something to offer. And what they do to the bishop of Canterbury you have to see to believe.

Is it searing satire? Is it a 21st century Get Smart? No, Johnny English is lampoonery at its most likable: a spy spoof for people who like secret agent films, but can't help feeling they need to be taken down a peg or two every once in a while.

And I can't help but think Maxwell Smart would have heartily approved.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 11 September 2004

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