from Film Forum, 07/24/03
Critics were skeptical when Disney announced it would begin developing movies based on amusement park rides. But they changed their minds after seeing the surprising and delightful Pirates of the Caribbean. Does that mean the world is ready for a movie based on a series of British television credit card commercials?
Some critics are indeed applauding Johnny English, the big-screen embellishment of a character from Barclay Bank promotions. The credit goes to Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr. Bean). Unfortunately, the first film that he headlined, simply titled Bean, was a lousy showcase for his work. This time, as the awkward antithesis of James Bond, he wins some laughs, but a fair number of complaints as well.
It was a project with promise, arriving under the direction of Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the team responsible for The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. Here's the premise: When other secret agents prove unavailable, the monarchy calls upon Johnny English to recapture the crown jewels and save the dignity of the throne. But his nemesis, a sour-faced entrepreneur named Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), has other plans. That's the basic framework of what amounts to a series of comedy sketches in which English botches one operation after another in spectacular fashion.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) argues, "The film is the cinematic equivalent of English cuisine: bland and unappetizing. It's full of crude toilet humor and doltish sight gags. Johnny English … may prove hilarious for a 30-second spot but when stretched over 90 minutes grows quickly stale."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) disagrees, impressed with the film's shortage of "gross tastelessness." He concludes, "It is likely that American audiences may find it a bit on the tame side. Atkinson … is something of a polarizing force. If you like Atkinson … you should like this film. If you don't … there's no other reason to see it."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) calls it "a delightfully silly summer comedy. Fans of James Bond, Inspector Clouseau, and Maxwell Smart, and those who would like a cleaner Austin Powers movie, may love this genial spoof." But he also objects to the occasional "obscenities, brief toilet humor, and other light objectionable content."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) is not so impressed. "English is appealingly lightweight and often innocuous fun. The first half of the movie won me over. Had it stuck with that same formula for the duration, it would have been a harmless romp for families turned off by the offensive Austin Powers series. Unfortunately it turns a corner, employing gross-out bathroom humor, stepping up the profanity and adding disappointing, though not explicit, sexual dialogue."
Perhaps most impressed is Michael Medved (Crosswalk), who stops just short of giving the film four stars. "The hilarity in the project comes from Atkinson's classic English understatement—he never overdoes the slapstick, so that his unceasing humiliation proves irresistibly funny. [Johnny English is] a rollicking romp … that children can enjoy along with their parents." He is especially pleased by the France-bashing humor, which he calls "a welcome and educational thematic plus." (Did he order "freedom fries" instead of popcorn?)
Joining the naysayers, D.J. Williams (Christian Spotlight), who admires the star's talents, says, "Not even Atkinson can save [English]. For a truly wonderful comedic evening, go out and rent some Mr. Bean TV episodes on video or DVD. Once you've got a taste of the hilarity of Mr. Bean, you'll realize that this isn't simply a kids movie that will fail to entertain the grownups, but a true waste of comic genius."
Mainstream critics are, for the most part, disappointed. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) argues, "Johnny English plays like a tired exercise, a spy spoof with no burning desire to be that, or anything else. The thing you have to credit Mike Myers for is that he loves to play Austin Powers and is willing to try anything for a laugh. Atkinson seems to have had Johnny English imposed upon him. And thus upon us."