Less old-school than just getting old, Johnny English Strikes Again is never as charmingly silly or witty as its preceding missions. Pulled from his ‘retirement’ (or is that a covert recruitment programme?) as a preparatory school teacher (think School of Rock meets James Bond), MI7 agent Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) is tasked with neutralising a dangerous cyber-attacker who is debilitating the UK and sending the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) into an alcohol-fuelled meltdown (‘Double vodka tonic- with no ice and no tonic!’). To assist in his mission against the digital terrorists, Johnny enlists a collection of analogue spy-gadgets, a classic sports-car and trusted, affable side-kick Bough (Ben Miller). Crossing paths with glamorous Russian agent ‘Bullitova’ (Olga Kurylenko), French mountain cyclists, virtual reality and fine dining- Johnny tries to make the case for an old-school spy in a new high-tech world…badly.
It’s all gone a bit The Pink Panther Strikes Again in this worn-out and repetitive follow-up to 2011’s Johnny English Reborn. As with Blake Edwards’ diminishing 1976 Pink Panther sequel, even a dedicated performance from a comically-gifted lead actor can’t rescue this ‘quintessentially British’ answer to Austin Powers from its repetitive formula (mostly using the tired trope of a gadget going awry in almost every scene) and tepid political satire. Even Johnny’s obnoxious British patriotism is subdued here. Atkinson’s full range of impressive physical and verbal quirks are employed: his ironic suaveness; rubber-face contortions in confusion, panic and embarassment; and gangly physical dexterity that sometimes gain a brief chuckle. Yet there’s an uncanny feeling that scenes are peppered with Atkinson’s improvisations, almost as if he is trying to raise the otherwise telegraphed comedy in William Davies’ feeble script. Thompson attempts to upstage with her Tracey-Ullman-as-Theresa-May routine that captures the desperate opportunism of the current PM and Miller brings his modest, reliable foil to Atkinson’s usually disastrous overconfidence. Yet unlike the 2003 original, Miller’s never really given a moment to shine. Most of the jokes are rehashed, even going so far to draw from Peter Sellers’ famous creation when Johnny and Bough go undercover as waiters with ludicrous ‘Franch’ accents. That being said, the odd sequence works well enough: a hand-cuffed Johnny commandeering an extremely (and understandably) anxious learner-driver for an intense, multi-car getaway got the biggest laugh from me.
Director David Kerr clearly blows the budget filming on location in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur as beautiful sweeping wide-shots of the Southern France coastal mountain roads (obviously reminiscent of GoldenEye’s car-chase in particular and the golden age of Bond in general) descend into horribly unconvincing CGI-backdrops for the Scottish highlands (hardly Skyfall). With so little that is merely passable here, let’s hope this agent just stays retired for good.