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Review: ‘Johnny English Reborn’

The Projector

1. Everything Rowan Atkinson does make me laugh. It's pretty uncanny how reliably he makes it happen. The main reason is that Atkinson never seems to be trying to go for a laugh, even when he's scrunching or contorting his famously elastic face into various shapes and sizes. The man just has a look in the eyes, a sad look even, a serious one maybe, that just kills me; I think maybe that look is saying, "I'm a very proper soul trapped in the body of a hilarious person." Maybe that's what makes him funny. Or maybe it's just the eyebrows. The eyebrows are pretty great too.

2. "Johnny English Reborn" is far from the best display of Atkinson's talents -- you'll need "Blackadder" or "The Tall Guy" for that, or even that old standby Mr. Bean -- but it's sort of a blessing that it exists anyway. After all, we are talking about a large-scale spy spoof (I never knew Johnny English was such a franchise, frankly) with name actors (Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike) and even some fancy stunts supporting a movie that just lets Atkinson act silly for 100 minutes. There's not much going on here, and the jokes are all pretty lightweight stuff, but I sort of didn't care: If you're gonna just let Rowan Atkinson run around and be funny, you will get no argument from me.

3. One problem with Johnny English, as a character, is that he's not really spoofing anything, at least not anything that has existed for 25 years. His Johnny English is meant to be a buffoonish version of James Bond, complete with the chauvinism and old-school mentality that doesn't jive with today's society. But James Bond hasn't been like that in forever; this is a dated spoof of a dated stereotype. This would be more upsetting if Atkinson and company didn't just drop it halfway through the movie. You think English is gonna be battling with Gillian Anderson as his superior officer, but nope: She just sort of shows up to remind you how weird Scully looks with dark brown hair. Instead, he tropes around the world -- including one goofy set-piece in Thailand -- trying to find a mole within the MI5, or something, I lost track, I was too busy giggling at Atkinson trying to do a karate kick.

4. The movie comes up with a few inspired set pieces and a lot of clunkers, but the inspired ones more than make up for it. My favorite one is when, during a "key" scene, English finds himself under the mind control of an evil mastermind, commanded to do a heinous crime. But English still is himself, so he has a right-hand-versus-left-hand fight with himself. Now, if Jim Carrey did a scene like this, it would be funny, but in a way very specific to Carrey: The fun would be watching Carrey be Carrey. Atkinson is more precise than that: You can almost see him working the permutations of how such a battle would work, and his actions feel legitimately involuntary. This really does look like it's hard, and it's also an uproarious little bit of intense physical comedy, one that ends with the inevitable, yet perfect, punchline. This is not the highest level of comedy, or even the highest level of effort from everyone involved, but at least they get out of the way and let the man work.

5. One of the things I've always liked about Atkinson? He's a little bit of a crank as a person, intensely private, and a fundamental comedy anarchist who, you can tell, does a film like this every few years just to remind people he exists but yearns for more. I really think he's being dramatically underused; can this possibly only be his second movie in six years? I think he might be a wonderful character actor, if he wanted to go that route, maybe the British version of Bill Murray, the sad clown. I'm willing to wait for that, and if "Johnny English Reborn" is all I get from the guy until then, I guess that'll just have to do.

Grade: B-