Film: Johnny English :(
As far as my counting goes, "Johnny English" is row Atkinson’s second attempt in major lead role. before that, he was seen in numerous small roles ("Hot shots II"), cameos ("Four weddings and a funeral") and one larger role in failed "Rat race". He is, of course, popular TV comedian and, strangely, his work I liked the best was in low-key police sitcom "Thin blue line". Whatever he does, that's the only place where he was not overdoing it.
As he said himself, all his life he worked with two roles: one of clueless, clumsy, dumb faced clown such is Mr. Bean, the other of sarcastic, cruel schemer; this one was exercised in "black adder", among other places.
Atkinson's first main role in feature was "bean", basically a compilation of Mr. Bean’s antics, fitted together with a story as an excuse. That's why "Johnny English" seemed interesting, first time Atkinson was acting out of these two roles. Here, the role is a certain mix, possessing bean's incompetence as an excuse for physical humor, and black adder's arrogance and stubbornness.
"Johnny English" is a mild secret agent spoof - well, more straight comedy than a spoof. It would be funny, was there more than one joke: English embarrasses himself due to his utter incompetence and unreasonable self-confidence; then he tries to find a way to rationalize his mistake trying to preserve his dignity, thus from potentially loveable goof, becoming an aggressor. The novelty is that his messes are on a much larger scale Because he's a secret agent in serve of his majesty. But the formula wears off after it's shown three times (if that much) so we start seeing jokes from far. When English spots a man with obscene graffiti on his butt disguising as archbishop of Canterbury, we know that we'll have pleasure to see his later pulling pants off from real archbishop and our reaction is something like: let's get this over with. It is, I think, too big of an embarrassment to be funny; at that moment, we don't want to see that. Nor does the bad guy, he honestly warns English: "Don't go there", it is too much even for him, even he's not that cruel. Authors of film, however, are. It also illustrates how painful setups for jokes are.
English's drama starts with stealing of stolen royal jewels. Actually, most of spy films filmed in
But what the film really suffers from is that authors are indecisive in what to do with English’s character; and it's a fine comedy character, an interesting quirk is that he draws his incompetence not from stupidity, but from too much self-confidence: he won't listen to advice or suggestion, he'll make little, human behavior but said confidence is magnifying them. What would be expected to be his virtue is the cause of his disaster.
But authors are trying to this comedy into a shape of standard action film and there's the trouble. How would you squeeze Johnny English in standard agent mold and even more, why would you? Here's an example: agent is obliged to walk into the sunset with his girl, and, to assure that, authors of this film provide Natalie Imbruglia with some of the most incoherent dialogue ever. Authors are in ordeal to rationalize what is it that attracted her to Johnny; in my opinion, they fail as Johnny possesses nothing of said qualifications. Most of all, he has no charisma or dignity. What could've attracted a women to him is pity and if that's what Imbruglia named as a reason, perhaps this story arc would be a bit plausible.
There are other elements of standard action flick, including a sinister plot, villain, boss who doesn't listen, even the moment when Johnny gives up only to regain strengths; those aren't there for parody: they are parts of a real plot that are supposed to involve us and make us care about the ending. This ambition significantly undemrines down the comedy.
What made me interested in writing about this film is trying to put Johnny English character in a setting that would make it actually work. It is easy once you spot parallels between him and inspector Clouseau: both characters lifted from everyday surrounding of situational comedy and put in context of action movie, they're both characters who perpetual fall, then get up, wipe some dust off and say "I meant to do that". Difference between their surrounding that Clouseau's serves comedy, while English’s serves action hoping that English is enough to do the comedy part. Clouseau never walks out with the girl in his hand, his romantic involvements are equally subject for farce; being incompetent, it is only logical that his enemies are equally incompetent, which is how he manages to get around them; if they show a bit of skills, he fails. This is just an elementary logic, one that actually makes comedy funny. Pascal Sauvage, played by John Malkovich, is not only competent but also creative, a person of spirit. This Johnny can defeat him only through a set of unlikely circumstances, which is what actually happens and it's unsatisfying. Yet, we have to admire the way Johnny does everything consistently wrong, to the last moment.
This shows crucial difference between film industry of Clouseau's 60ies and Johnny's 00ies: today, industry takes itself so seriously that it's comedies have to be serious; back then, the whimsical, cheerful spirit was sold well (and some human warmth with it); today, audience wants to believe that they are watching a deep psychological drama even if they went to see a film for fun and then forget about it. Back then, cult films were Roger Vadim's pointless comedies; Today, it's Fincher's dead-serious, brutal films. Audience desperately wants to be taken seriously, so they let themselves be fooled in believing that they are, while filmmakers are still working by the numbers and molds. Audience wants to be respected, yet does very little to earn this respect. It is very easy to say figure out that "dude, where's my car?" is a shallow, pointless film; but do have an eye to realize that, for instance, "runaway jury" or "usual suspects" aren't very deep and thoughtful either.
John Malkovitch as bad guy Sauvage has some bright moments in this film: the way he sees English as somewhat annoying but amusing pet is solely Malkovic's creation. We see that he enjoys watching as Johnny gets rid of himself without bad guys help. In the scene where Johnny cites his plan into the microphone and the entire hall hears it, Malkovich just slopes into the chair as if saying "This is not even a challenge anymore". In many occasions, by treating English with a sort of mock-up respect, he only makes his embarrassment even greater. Sauvage wins every duel with Johnny hands down, and it is only intimidating logic of the action films that makes him lose.