Johnny English

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg
88 min. distributer. Director: Peter Howitt. Cast: Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, John Malkovich, Tim Pigott-Smith.

Rowan Atkinson is known to TV audiences as the Black Adder and Mr. Bean, and to movie audiences for his theatrical reprise Bean and supporting roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Tall Guy. With Johnny English, Atkinson futzes around with a character liable to spawn another franchise. The film is already a smash overseas, but ironically, American audiences--lately known for their indiscriminate comedic taste--probably won't take the bait.

Johnny English, you see, is another in a long line of spy spoofs (or, in other words, James Bond spoofs). Americans will probably be sticking with their Austin Powers (the Canadian Mike Myers) instead of embracing Atkinson's low-impact English, but Johnny English makes a gently frolicsome comedy that's genuinely suitable for all ages. In other words, it's about as rare as a nine-bob note.

When alpha-male Agent One (cast wittily as Emma Thompson's hubby Greg Wise) is killed in action, followed by the rest of the British Secret Service, only desk jockey Johnny English and his loyal sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) remain to save the day from evil Frenchman Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, playing an accent with bad hair). A mysterious female agent (Natalie Imbruglia) is considerably more competent than Johnny, but whose side is she on?

The premise of a blundering hero--let's call it the Clouseau Formula--is as old as the hills, but pretty much as good as the actor in the role. Rowan Atkinson is a highly skilled comic performer capable of subtlety and contortionistic physical comedy. Unfortunately, the script by actual Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day) is strictly by the numbers and plunders specific jokes from other, better comedies like the Naked Gun films. Consequently, the laughs are spread mighty thin. If you like Atkinson, as I do, you'll muddle through, but if you bring kids, they're liable to giggle happily throughout.

Atkinson has a few inspired visual gags (all but the climactic payoff are in the trailer) and a couple of verbal ones (the name "Bough"--pronounced "Boff"--is tailored to Atkinson's patented change-up tongue), but nothing that couldn't be enjoyed a few months from now on video or cable. It's a shame that Purvis, Wade, and Atkinson muster only a fraction of the inspired wit of the star's TV episodes, but it's a sweet sensation to recommend a comedy for kids.

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