By this point, you probably know whether you’re a fan of Rowan Atkinson’s shtick.
Johnny English Strikes Again, his latest cinematic spectacle of farcical debacles, will not sway anyone’s opinion one way or the other; there’s no reinvention of his comedic wheel here. But for those of us who worship at his altar, it further cements his legacy as the current titleholder of the archetypal silver screen clown.
Though his work in the Johnny English franchise reigns in the deliberately-egregious performativity of his claim-to-fame Mr. Bean character (his most indelible mark on future generations will probably remain as the voice of Zazu in The Lion King) directionally, they share a similar brand of humor; his antics might not be as clearly intended for the camera, but the yucks are just as obvious. If you’re looking for subtlety, you ain’t gonna find any here.
But no one nowadays plays the classic onscreen buffoon quite like Rowan. The third installment of this James Bond spoof yet again revels in inverting the expected calm, cool, and collected personas of secret agents with Atkinson’s ridiculousness; his entire being screams anything but the suave and smoldering put-togetherness of the hunks that usually shake but don’t stir; he milks this inherently-amusing relationship for all its worth (and then some).
Unlike the vast majority of recent spoofs, Atkinson takes a more physical approach to his craft, veering farther into slapstick than most of his contemporaries. He bumbles around, befuddled — not that Johnny, in his lovably-childlike arrogance, would ever cop to his own ineptitude. Instead of relying on 21st century, no-holds-barred crudity — which, mind you, satisfies me just as much, albeit differently — Atkinson taps into the good-natured core fueling Johnny’s dweebness. He’s slovenly without being a slob, boasting a quaintly-cuter variety of that 007 charm (this unified tone is obviously a result of Atkinson’s lifelong commitment to honing such material, but it also might be due to the fact that only one person is responsible for the screenplay, a rarity in this writers’-room-dominant, laughs-by-committee genre).
Since the superficial optics of Atkinson’s pervasive silliness can prevent people from recognizing the deep complexity of his talents, no one should mistake Johnny English Strikes Again to be as senseless as its titular subject. There’s a perverse logic to this imbecile outsmarting, by out-dumbing, the most experienced experts in their respective fields, whose educated intellects simply cannot conceive of, and thus predict, such erratic behavior. If a doofus can beat (with the help of some good old-fashioned Hollywood luck) the best of the best, what does that say about the worth of those we vaunt to the highest echelons of our social hierarchies?
Interpreted through this lens, the movie becomes a quasi-satire of the power of established institutions, from Bond-esque English masculinity, to politicians (Emma Watson nails her Theresa May impression), and new-age evil geniuses: young, white, male powermongers in Silicon Valley. It’s an implicit indictment of these institutions’ perceived strength. Within this frame, Johnny English’s lunacy adopts quixotic resonance — right on down to his smarter Sancho sidekick — making a fool, in the classic sense of the term, of what we hold dear, mocking the establishment that can be as laughably absurd as English himself.
Some can claim Atkinson’s act is ever-staler, a case of diminishing returns. And his routine definitely lacks the surprise of novelty here; the customary set pieces will put a smile on your face — again, if you’re into that sort of thing — but none prove particularly memorable.
Even so, there’s merit in keeping his noble tradition alive, a storied lineage that’s a foundation of cinema itself, dating back to Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers (what’s up with early comics being known by only one name? A vestige of their vaudeville bill origins?), right on through to the the likes of Peter Sellers and Leslie Nielsen.
As for more modern incarnations of this type, it’s slim-pickings; physical comedy is simply out of fashion at the moment. But a few names come to mind that embody the corporeal cheer of the afore-listed titans of the form: the closest present-day corollaries are probably Sacha Baron Cohen and Melissa McCarthy, but both are imperfect comparisons.
Neither fit like the glove that is Rowan Atkinson, and Johnny English Strikes Again allows audiences to comfortably slip him on for less than 90 minutes. It’s an unremarkable entry in his remarkable oeuvre, made even more remarkable by its refreshing nostalgia.