“He knows no fear, he knows no danger, he knows nothing”. That is the tagline to this film. This film spoofs the highly successful James Bond franchise, not in a way that rips into the franchise but also not in the smart, clever subtle way that you have to be familiar in what the film is parodying. This film is endearing because the eponymous Johnny English is basically everyone. He is that fan that aspires to James Bond: cool, suave, gets everything and is basically perfect. However, he is the complete opposite: an idiot with no experience, messing up every 5 minutes while trying to maintain “cool” in front of others.
Johnny English is a low-level MI7 agent who works at the desk with dreams of being their top agent. When Agent One dies in a submarine accident – due to English not checking the hatch code – the rest of the agents are killed when a bomb is detonated at Agent One’s funeral. Meaning that Johnny English is the only surviving agent. First job: Look into the plot to steal the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. While overseeing security at an evening in the Tower of London, the jewels are stolen during a power cut. While trying to work out who stole the jewels, he links the suspects to Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), but the head of MI7 doesn’t believe it and tells English to drop him from the case. English, goes with his gut instinct and continues investigating Sauvage, leading him to discover a plot that is much bigger than stealing the crown jewels.
So why, do we sit through 90 minutes of someone who isn’t your typical leading man in an action film? That is down to the performance of Rowan Atkinson, a fantastic physical performer, most famously known for his work in TV with Blackadder and Mr Bean. Atkinson brings this quality to the role, the ability to not make the lead a complete baffling baboon, when English comes ups with a plan, he explains it with such conviction and seriousness that it doesn’t sound like the worst plan, but you know that it will like not work. He comes up with a plan that has the most embellishment as opposed to the easiest, simplest plan believing that this will impress whoever his audience.
Natalie Imbruglia is our Bond Girl (Well, ‘English Girl’) as Lorna Campbell. She is smart, intelligent and the straight man to Atkinson’s English. But she does not necessarily fill the Bond Girl stereotype, maybe it’s the writers acknowledging the Bond Girl stereotype and reworking it for this film. She isn’t a sex symbol, she is placed in the role of a love interest, the only ‘romantic scenes’ are fleeting, and she isn’t a conquest. This is a good thing, as sometimes the role in Bond films are seen as misogynistic. However, unfortunately, Australia’s Imbruglia doesn’t sell it, I don’t know if her accent was exaggerated to amplify the Englishness of the film but I found myself in her scenes distracted, trying to work out if her character is English or Australian, also her scenes with Atkinson didn’t really have chemistry, when the straight-man/funny-man trope is used, usually we enjoy it because of the conflict they cause, the chemistry when they argue is funny – but it falls flat, often it comes off as parent berating a child. When they do the romantic scenes, it mainly just shows English’s inept at wooing women and reminds us they are love interests.
Meanwhile, going against the Bond trope is Ben Miller as English’s sidekick, Bough. While Bond doesn’t need a sidekick often going solo, clearly English isn’t trusted and has Bough. Bough is very much a 2-D character but Miller is very effective in what he is given. A lot of his scene are simply answering English while English tries to prove that he is the top agent, Bough tends to follow what English does, never questioning that it is stupid, Bough is similar to English in some ways, coming up with the same idea as English, embracing the elaborateness of some of English’s plans. Malkovich does a good job as our villain Sauvage. He fills in that stereotypical role of a villain being even British or foreign (often European), his French accent is very questionable but it doesn’t matter because Malkovich just revels in it, his performance isn’t pantomime, but is comical and acts as a good foil to Atkinson’s English. When he knows that he is one step ahead of English, he enjoys relishing it in front of English and the audience. If there is one thing English and Sauvage have in common: they love an audience. Is Sauvage one of the greatest villains ever? No. You don’t feel threatened by him, but Malkovich’s dynamic with Atkinson sells it, they sell these opposite yet similar characters.
Every Bond film is infamous for its title theme, sung by a famous singer, so this 007 parody needs its own song, that sums up the character of Johnny English and the film. After setting up English as the man for the job, the title theme plays A man for all Seasons by Robbie Williams. This song is the complete opposite to the Bond theme. Often, they are slow, match the tone of the film and the James Bond theme and they ooze suaveness. A man for all Seasons is not cool, but it sums up the atmosphere of the film, it is pure fun. If you are not signing it in your head by the end of the film, you are lying. It is catchy and it matches the character of Johnny English. The song is about our heroic character, describing him as one of a kind, the best, he can save the day, but the music doesn’t scream “cool”, but it plays a juxtaposition against the title scene of English ‘practicing’ being an agent at home. The song isn’t to be taken seriously but promotes the Englishness of it because you will be getting “Queen and country safe and sound…” in your head.
This film isn’t smart nor is it dumb. It is just fun. It may take liberty with the rules of the British Monarchy, but we can ignore that. Nevertheless, It is blatant that it takes bits and bobs from James Bond, it isn’t an insult, they aren’t making fun of it negatively, two of the screenwriters: Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have experience writing a few James Bond films – so it is all done in jest and silliness. If you’re expecting Atkinson to go all Mr Bean, you will be disappointed because it isn’t that kind of film but don’t fret Atkinson is still fully prepared to do the physical comedy and facial expressions that we all know and love. This is the kind of film that you will always go back to, whether it is the catchy song or the familiarity of Atkinson, it is like going home after years away, it allows to just escape from reality.
Director: Peter Howitt
Scriptwriter: Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; William Davies
Starring: Rowan Atkinson; Natalie Imbruglia; Ben Miller; John Malkovich
Running Time: 88 minutes (1 hour 28 minutes)