Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English – a riff on the incompetent spy he’d done in a series of adverts – made his screen debut in 2003, and showed up again in 2011 in Johnny English Reborn. The gap between entries in this attenuated series suggests few were exactly eager for more of this Clouseau/Get Smart knock-off, especially with Atkinson ageing to the point when some of his rubber-limbed pratfalls look more like an old git falling over painfully than deft clowning. In the event, this a laughs-lite redo for a franchise that never reached Austin Powers levels of hilarity and struggles to do more than raise the odd smile here.
The basic premise is workable – a cyberattack blows the cover of all the current spies at MI7 and the PM (Emma Thompson, holding back from doing a nasty Theresa May parody) suggests bringing an old one out of retirement … which means intelligence chief Pegasus (Adam James) calls in Johnny, who is now a geography teacher at a private school, along with a trio of cameo codgers (Charles Dance and Michael Gambon – reunited after Ali G Indahouse – and Edward Fox) who get totalled in a joke mishap with a stun grenade pen that stubbornly fails to work, like so many others to come. The obvious villain is Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), a Muskerbergjobs tech gazillionaire manipulating the G12 summit into turning over all their data and thus – hah! – control of the world. Johnny gets in a gas-guzzling Aston-Martin that can’t keep up with an electric car, co-opts his old sidekick Bough (Ben Miller, presumably under orders not to Baldric the limelight away from the star) to help him set up slapstick routines, and blunders his way to the South of France and back, tangling with Bond girl Ophelia Bulletova (Olgy Kurylenko, deserving better), and going through extended jokes involving a magnet boots, VR headset, a kilt, an exoskeleton and – for God’s sake – a suit of armour.
Written by series creator William Davies (whose CV is studded with not-that-funny credits like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde, Alien Autopsy and Flushed Away – plus a fluke strike with How to Train Your Dragon), and the feature debut of Inside No. 9 director David Kerr. 007 parodies wore out their welcome even before the official series started doing duck-on-head disguises – and this fails to engage with the genre in any inventive or fresh manner. Residual affection for Atkinson goes a long way, but the gags and routines here are almost all botched – editing and pacing is notably bad, as if done by folks unfamiliar with the basic grammar of ordinary comedy.