Johnny English is not a spoof, because it has nothing to say about the movies that inspired its situations. And it is not a regular spy comedy, because there are no serious spy scenes for the jokes to be bounced off. It's a zero, wandering around itself, benignly hoping that it will make us laugh even though it has not offered funny material or delivery.
The movie stars Rowan Atkinson. You may remember that Atkinson appeared in a series of Barclaycard commercials on TV about ten years ago, playing an absent-minded spy who went around with an assistant named Bough. Remember the one where he bought the rug in the Persian marketplace, draped it over his shoulder and let it catch fire? Well, now we have an 86-minute movie based on that character.
In those 86 minutes, there were precisely two moments good enough to make me smile. One of them shows Atkinson running around his bathroom and miming to the radio. Not comic genius, but hey. The other scene involves a roadside chase, where Atkinson has been caught by a speed camera, and uses the rocket launcher on his car to blow the thing away. I didn't identify with the joke, because I don't drive, but I know enough drivers to understand what's being got at.
But anyway. That's it. Nothing else in the movie is funny at all. It doesn't even try too hard -- it's just Atkinson inhabiting stock sequences from the spy genre and not looking like he's taking them very seriously. The movie's routine is like this: Criminals seem to be up to something. Johnny covers up his incompetent lack of knowledge by confidently explaining his plan of action and waving off all objections. He dives in, and screws up. He therefore looks silly.
Johnny's mistakes include that old gag about disrupting grieving relatives and accusing them of being villains, before discovering, most embarrassingly, that he is wrong, and the actual villains have dodged his trail. Eventually the plot reveals that its main bad guy is John Malkovich, an actor who should be off doing something better, putting on a French accent (badly) and playing a character whose plan is to steal the throne of England and use the royal prerogative to make Britain a massive prison complex.
A lot of the movie is an excuse for Atkinson to make silly faces and noises, like when he accidentally shoots himself with a muscle-relaxant tranquilizer capsule and falls to the floor with jittery arms and a loony voice. When this sort of stuff is not happening, the Johnny English character is just a guy who recites plain lines with an annoyingly unconvincing smirk. That's not my criticism; that's the genuine intent.
And … it's just not funny. Atkinson was a great talent back when he was playing devious in the role of Black Adder, and I even like his act of innocent dopiness as Mr. Bean. But let me break it down for you: Unlikeable arrogance can be funny. Likeable stupidity can be funny. The arrogant stupidity of Johnny English is boring.
Pretty clear logic. I hope you agree with it. If you need extra encouragement to stay away from Johnny English, then think about this: Starring in commercials is dodgy in itself. Basing a whole movie around them is one of the clearest signs of career desperation that could ever be thought up. Unless they do the Nescafe romance, maybe. That was pretty cute.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG" for comic nudity, some crude humor and language.)
Review also posted on www.ukcritic.com.