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'Johnny English': Fool Britannia

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2003

"JOHNNY ENGLISH," a spy spoof based on -- I kid you not -- a popular series of British credit card commercials featuring an inept secret agent, is silly.

Now there's just plain silly and then there's British silly. Directed by Peter "Sliding Doors" Howitt and starring the adorable bumbler Rowan Atkinson as the titular super-sleuth, "Johnny English" is the latter variety, which, even at its stupidest (picture Atkinson in a James Bond-style white dinner jacket covered with human excrement), is still delivered with the kind of English aplomb that PBS audiences around the country have come to know and love. It must be the accent.

When "Johnny English" opens, our hero is seen infiltrating the lair of some criminal mastermind, in the process overcoming a pair of vicious guard dogs with squeak toys, single-handedly disarming a couple of automatic weapon-toting sentries and seducing the requisite femme fatale. Except that it's all a dream. It turns out he's actually a low-level, office-bound functionary for the British Secret Service, and it isn't until a couple of dozen of his superiors are killed -- thanks to his incompetence, mind you -- that Johnny is promoted to field operative. His first case? Foil the plans of fiendish French villain Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, having an obvious ball with the world's thickest accent) to have himself declared king of England -- don't ask -- and to turn the country into one large penal colony for the world's criminals.

Existing in a realm of quality somewhere above the level of "The Master of Disguise" but below that of the "Austin Powers" series, "Johnny English" does manage to get off some good laughs, especially during a scene in which Johnny accidentally injects himself with a powerful muscle relaxant. As any fan of the "Mr. Bean" and "The Black Adder" series knows, Atkinson is a gifted physical comedian, not to mention a master of the bemused expression. Make that several hundred bemused expressions. Atkinson's arsenal of wryly cocked eyebrow, desperately furrowed forehead and cocky "what, me worry?" smile subtly delineates emotions ranging from cluelessness-in-denial to suppressed panic.

Sure, the movie's corny and rude. After all, Johnny's partner, played with exquisite deadpan by British comic Ben Miller, is an agent named, sniggeringly enough, Bough. (In case you don't think that's funny, remember it's pronounced to rhyme with "cough.") Lots of "Beavis and Butthead"-style mileage is gotten out of just hearing Atkinson say that over and over. And, when trying to impress the gorgeous agent Lorna Campbell (songstress Natalie Imbruglia) with his knowledge of Japanese, Johnny somehow manages to offer a toast that is translated in subtitles as, "May all your daughters be born with three bottoms."

Okay, so it's sophomoric. You were expecting, maybe, "Masterpiece Theatre"? "Johnny English" is innocuous, if dumb, fun, which is great if you're looking for something to take your Anglophilic 7-year-old to that won't make you blush too terribly, but not if you're looking for something with a few more teeth than "The Pink Panther."

JOHNNY ENGLISH (PG, 87 minutes) -- Contains mild bathroom humor, slapstick, a buttock or two and naughty slang. Area theaters.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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