An idiot doofus is out to save the dregs of the British Empire while wallowing in unwarranted nostalgia for a past that wasn’t as awesome as he would prefer to think.
I did not expect this new Johnny English movie — third in a franchise sending up spy movies in general and James Bond in particular — to come with an anti-Brexit bite. It may be unintentional... but then again, it might not be. (Creative types in the UK are very worried about how badly Brexit will impact all things artistic, even silly spoofy popcorn movies. It wouldn’t be surprising for this to manifest, either deliberately or subconsciously, even in goofy movies like this one.) If nothing else, even accidental snarking rage against the impending UK withdrawal from the European Union lends Johnny English Strikes Again a bit of heft that it might otherwise not have, a bit of significance that lets it sit without embarrassment next to the much wittier second movie, Johnny English Reborn. (The less said about the dreadful first movie, entitled simply Johnny English, the better.)
(A bit of background for those not familiar with me and my criticism: I am a very progressive native New Yorker who has been living in London for almost eight years, who loves both America and Britain, if almost in spite of myself, and who despairs at the rise of Trump and the triumph of Brexit, which are obviously two sides of the same coin of bigotry, xenophobia, and a wistfulness for a past that excluded everyone from basic respect and dignity who wasn’t a white man. I am a proud social justice warrior, and fuck all y’all who can’t deal with black and brown people, with aggressive women, with diversity, and with the notion that social justice isn’t worth fighting for. I am living both sides of the transatlantic awful.)
So, Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) is called back into service when all the agents of — ahem! — MI7 are outed in a cyberattack. He has to do a thing and run around and save the day, etc, because literally no one else is available who won’t be instantly IDed by the nebulous enemy as a secret agent. I shall refrain from pointing out that this was also the inciting event of the Melissa McCarthy movie Spy, and that that one was about giving ultracompetent and if anything overprepared women the chance to show their stuff while this one is about letting an incompetent moron of a man play the hero in spite of his ineptitude. I mean, fuck this shit, and yet I also love Rowan Atkinson, so I am confused.
This spoof has the same inciting incident as Melissa McCarthy’s ‘Spy,’ but while that movie was about giving ultracompetent women the chance to show their stuff, this one… is not.
The plot is entirely besides the point except in how it allows Atkinson to celebrate male fatuousness as a good thing, which is at least more actually mildly amusing than it is generally presumed to be. But we also get the awesome-and-why-doesn’t-she-get-to-headline-her-own-movie Olga Kurylenko — as some flavor of Eastern European baddie spy — to show up English absolutely every time she encounters him. We get the even more awesome Emma Thompson as the British Prime Minister, but she’s kind of a baddie, too, a neoliberal who wants to hand over all of the country’s infrastructure to an American tech tycoon (Jake Lacy), which is almost precisely the overtly obvious evil plan of the actual currently in-power Tory party, to privatize all public services in the UK.
Is this heavyhanded? Sure. Is it nevertheless pointed and very necessary? You bet. Is it funny? Sure, in a laugh-until-you-cry sort of way.
Meanwhile, because of the nature of the cyberattack — it’s digital! — English refuses to use any modern tech: not a hybrid car, not a smartphone. It could be tracked, y’see. So instead he’s getting faxes — faxes — from HQ while on the road in France, and Kurylenko in her zippy electric car is running rings around his Aston Martin, which looks great but is a petrol-hog, a problem in the middle of a car chase. The “good old British technology” that English favors — favours! — is laughable in the modern world. Retro vintage is nonsense, it’s bullshit, it’s not cool. It is low-tech hilarity. English and his preference for old-school is buffoonish. Laugh until you cry!
So, yes, you could see this cheerfully dumb movie — the perfectly competent feature debut of British TV director David Kerr, from screenwriter William Davies, returning from the previous Johnny English movies — as good-natured silliness, forgettable but inoffensive. And, no, that really is the best way to see it. But maybe someday, as we wander the Mad Max afterscape in search of potable water and antibiotics, when we have crashed the society that allowed us to produce inconsequential fluff like this, we shall look back, and — justifiably — we will mourn the past that has gone.
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