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JOHNNY ENGLISH
U.S. Release Date: July 18, 2003
Distributor: Universal
Writer: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Composer: Ed Shearmur
Cast: Rowan Atkinson, John Malkovich
Running Time: 1 hour and 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (comic nudity, some crude humor and language)

Barney Fife Meets James Bond
by C.A. Wolski

Johnny English is a rarity in today's movie market—a comedy that's actually funny, and a satire that is actually satirical. It also showcases a star turn by Rowan Atkinson that other would-be comic actors should study in detail until they understand why the British actor's Johnny English is one of the best comic creations to come along in years. Or better yet, study the work of Don Knotts, because that's who Atkinson seems to be channeling throughout the movie. Yes, the guy who played Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show and won five Emmys for it and who made a series of comedies in the '60s for Universal, English's distributor.

Like Knotts' Fife, Atkinson's English is an amiable loser with delusions of greatness. Through a well-meaning act of incompetence, English becomes MI-7's top spy Agent 1, and is assigned to guard Britain's crown jewels. Of course, the jewels are stolen, which sends English and his sidekick Bough (pronounced Boff—a British term that just has to be accepted, not explained). Along the way, he meets and falls for a beautiful female agent (Natalie Imbruglia) and matches wits with Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich as a bizarre Frenchman with an impenetrable accent), who actually has a really funny, yet cleverly impractical scheme to not rule the world, but corner a particular market.

Fundamentally, what makes Johnny English work isn't Atkinson's lip-syncing of ABBA songs or the poop jokes (there's two) or his constantly malfunctioning gun (a la Barney Fife). No, what makes the picture work is that Atkinson plays it straight, as does the spare, funny script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies. It would have been easy to make English an absolute idiot, but he isn't. He's a guy out of his league, so all he can do to compensate is act the part of a superspy. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. His disintegrating gun aside, English does, to his credit, figure out who the bad guy is even after his boss Pegasus (Tim Pigott-Smith) tells him he's wrong. And there are funny and almost touching moments of painful self-awareness when English, embarrassed by his incompetence, silently cringes. But in the end, English loves his country and does everything he can—in spectacularly comic fashion—to save it.

Although the script is breezy and filled with several brilliant gems (including one of the best car chases captured on film in a long time), the finale does drag on a little long and a couple scenes actually feel a bit chopped. The cast is all pitch perfect except perhaps Imbruglia, whose character is a bit too serious. It would have been nice to give her something comic to do.

But that aside, Atkinson and director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) have delivered a spy spoof that could and should give Austin Powers a run for his money.


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