Retro Review: 'Johnny English' not too shabby for early-2000s spy films

As an Indian immigrant who grew up in America, I have enjoyed American and international films. One of my favorites growing up was 2003’s “Johnny English” a film starring British actor Rowan Atkinson, whom my older sister and I were huge fans of.

That said, it’s funny to think of “Johnny English” as its own film, rather than as part of a series of overdone movies. Keep in mind that 2003 was a year after the critically panned “Die Another Day” nearly destroyed the James Bond and spy genre. Additionally, the not-bad but still disappointing “Mission Impossible II” came at the turn of the millennium. Even 2002’s “Austin Powers in Goldmember” was considered underwhelming, along with the incredibly cringey-in-retrospect “Spy Kids.”

So how does “Johnny English” hold up? For starters, Atkinson is especially convincing as the titular character: a former office nerd suddenly thrust into the role of top MI7 agent. He’s simultaneously charming and hilarious as an underdog character that knows everything about being a spy, but is too bumbling to succeed at it. Atkinson also has great chemistry with the rest of the protagonists, including having witty back-and-forths with Bough, English’s loyal assistant and played by Ben Miller.

Delivery is where any British comedy shines and “Johnny English” has several memorable moments that showcase Atkinson’s penchant for comedic timing, illustrating the absurdities of typical British sensibility even in the face of a ridiculous situation. For example, when English first meets another agent, he practically swoons upon meeting the 007-lookalike and delivered one of the film’s many subtly brilliant lines when he remarks “such class.”  He has other amusing scenes, including staging a fight with a fictional assailant after accidentally knocking out a guest at a party hosted for the queen of England.

Yet for every well-crafted slapstick moment comes a tedious overdone joke. Atkinson is at his best when his characters are incompetent, but also dry and quick-witted enough to follow along. English is sometimes a little too ridiculous, with many scenes relying on bad staging and overdone physical comedy, such as when English mistakenly tries to expose the Archbishop of Canterbury as a fraud.

Also, the bad guy really sucks. John Malkovich, who plays a French prison-industry businessman, has probably the worst fake French accent I’ve ever heard and his “evil plans” in the film are so unlikely that it’s hard to actually think of his character as anything other than John Malkovich trying to be an evil French guy, as if we’ve never seen the latter in a British film before.

Considering that the film had an unoriginal plot in an oversaturated genre, I can understand why “Johnny English” has a 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But watching it again, I can’t help but still see promise in it.

Then again, if you want to see more of Atkinson, I’d try something like “Blackadder” or “Mr. Bean” instead.


Anokh Palakurthi is associate life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at anokh.palakurthi@uconn.edu. He tweets @DC_Anokh.