Johnny English

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

JOHNNY ENGLISH

4/10

UK 2003 : Peter HOWITT : 88 mins

“I never played a jewel thief in a movie,” drawls John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich – one of that film’s best running gags being the inability of joe public to actually remember any of the numerous films in which the uber-thesp has actually appeared. His latest – limp Bond spoof Johnny English – isn’t likely to linger in many people’s memories for very long, as it’s a lukewarm, dated Brit-com in the uninspired vein of The Parole Officer and High Heels and Low Lifes. This is, however, nicely ironic in a way: because Malkovich finally does get to play a jewel thief this time.

And he doesn’t just purloin any old baubles – as French aristocrat-businessman Pascal Sauvage, he makes off with nothing less than the British crown jewels as part of his convoluted scheme to take over the throne. Standing in his way are klutzy British ‘MI7’ agent Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson in a role initally created for a series of Barclaycard adverts), long-suffering assistant Bough (Ben Miller) and plucky femme fatale Lorna Campbell (singer Natalie Imbruglia).

Atkinson can do this kind of character-comedy in his sleep, and while he’s certainly been served by far more skilful directors than Howitt, and far funnier writers than Johnny English‘s scriptwriters (William Davies, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) in the past, he does what he does pretty much better than anyone – while Imbruglia provides enough welcome brio in an underwritten, Famke Janssen-ish kind of role to suggest she’ll cope with stronger material next time out. Surprisingly, Imbruglia doesn’t get to warble the movie’s (very ho-hum) theme song – that task falls to a sleepy-sounding Robbie Williams, appropriate given his status as un-Cool Britannia’s ultimate avatar of naffness.

Despite these distractions, however, Johnny English is primarily an excuse for the latest outrageous characterisation by Malkovich, declaiming his dialogue in a style amusingly reminiscent of the BJM ‘dictaphone’ scene. He sports what sounds like a deliberately rotten French accent here – though it’s dangerous to assume too much, given that he’s lived in France for years and that his much-mocked ‘Russian’ stylings from Rounders were in fact spot-on Lithuanian (as taught by his friend, Baltic actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite.)

It’s more likely, however, that Malkovich spotted this broad, cartoonishly daft stuff for what it is and decided to have a bit of fun with a character whose delusions of grandeur are truly epic in scale. As Sauvage plots his coronation, we see his face on bank-notes and stamps – by far the best visual gags in the whole picture – and then at the ceremony itself Sauvage lolls, bemused, on the throne as English does his best to torpedo the dastardly scheme, until finally the French pretender’s sang-froid snaps and Malkovich flies into inimitable, full-on rant mode.

It’s almost entertaining enough to compensate for the general shoddiness and cheapness of the enterprise – the coronation ceremony is ridiculously small-scale, more like a posh village wedding than an epochal state event. Perhaps Malkovich’s fee swallowed up a large chunk of the budget – it’s hard to see why he’d get involved with such a project otherwise, unless he found himself with a little time on his hands in London after recording his appearance on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs (which provided many more laughs than this picture). Then again, perhaps he caught director Howitt’s last movie, the relatively ‘straight’ but equally ham-fisted thriller AntiTrust, which was effortlessly and amusingly dominated by a slumming Tim Robbins’ turn as a villainous Bill Gates-ish computer magnate. Sauvage isn’t that kind of character a clef, unfortunately – although, with his chic tailoring, long grey hair and nostril-flaringly imperious manner, he does have something of Lauren Bacall about him from certain angles.

There’s plenty of time to ponder such tangents, so frequently (and, sometimes, embarrassingly) does Johnny English squander the talents of the hapless talent in front of the camera: the title character may be howlingly inept, but he’s still rather better at his job than Messrs Howitt, Davies, Purvis and Wade. The film arrives in British cinemas hot on the heels of Shanghai Knights – an even less successful action-comedy about an upstart nobleman’s scheme to replace the Queen – to prove, depressingly, that anything Hollywood can do, we can do pretty much as badly ourselves.

10th April, 2003
(seen 8th April, Odeon Gate, Newcastle)

by Neil Young