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Movie review: 'Johnny English Reborn'

Rowan Atkinson stars in the slapstick spy spoof.

October 21, 2011|By Robert Abele, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Rowan Atkinson and Rosamund Pike in "Johnny English Reborn."
Rowan Atkinson and Rosamund Pike in "Johnny English Reborn." (Giles Keyte / Universal…)

Like any international spy movie worth its salt, "Johnny English Reborn" boasts helicopter stunts, exotic locations, choreographed fighting and nifty gadgets. But because this is a comedy starring gifted British comic actor Rowan Atkinson, what's more memorable (and hilariously so) is the simplest form of decorum-puncturing mayhem: an adjustable office chair that won't stop adjusting during a meeting with the prime minister. Atkinson's agent acts as if nothing untoward is happening in a sequence that's entirely reminiscent of his forebear Peter Sellers staring at that ever-unrolling toilet paper in "The Party."

MI-7 agent English is the newer bumbler in Atkinson's canon, after rubbery Everyman Mr. Bean, last seen in the 2007 comedy "Mr. Bean's Holiday." Good-natured Bean's speechless, innocent shenanigans may be more classically iconic, but English — introduced in the 2003 worldwide hit "Johnny English" — gives Atkinson a chance to add to his prodigious slapstick abilities a well-honed gift (seen to best effect on the BBC sitcom "Black Adder") for hundred-yard-stare arrogance and a withering baritone.

The gangly performer can combine the two in the subtlest of ways for brilliant effect, and it's often the saving grace in what is an otherwise routine vehicle for Atkinson's talents. So while a Tibetan mountain prologue setting up English's long exile from Her Majesty's Secret Service spits out the requisite kung fu training gags, it's watching the actor's stoic mug develop a twitchy eye — sparked by anyone referring to the failed mission that ruined his reputation — that brings the most delicately silly comic pleasure.

Elsewhere, writer Hamish McColl' and director Oliver Parker attempt to update spoof elements to reflect recent trends in spy movies, namely the parkour action of "Casino Royale" and the "Bourne" movies: faced with a roof-hopping, wall-scaling villain, English casually takes the elevator. Then there's the real-life privatization of government, which leads to one of the better jokes, that MI-7 is now "Toshiba British Intelligence."

The story, though, is a hodgepodge of espionage flick tropes. Coming in from the cold, English and an eager young sidekick (Daniel Kaluuya) are tasked by the chief (Gillian Anderson) to uncover an assassination ring plotting to take out the Chinese premier. Along the way our hero feels the competition from a smooth-talking, hot-shot agent (Dominic West); develops a fondness for a fetching behavioral psychologist (Rosamund Pike); and has disastrous run-ins with an elderly assassin whose weapon is a tricked-out vacuum cleaner.

But all that matters with efforts like this is whether the cookie-cutter plotting serves up enough situations for Atkinson to contort himself into and out of jams. After all, are the narratives what you remember from the "Pink Panther" movies? Or the silly things, like that Clouseau could so easily get his finger caught in a spinning globe?

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