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Johnny English

Say, "Never again"

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Scare bleu and blimey! Some smelly French guy has stolen the British Crown Jewels. There's only one man for the job -- Austin Powers! No wait, call Inspector Clouseau. Notify "our man in Havana." Pencil in this year's James Bond. What -- there's a bumbling secret agent already on the case? Johnny English?

Before you ask "who," you might well ask "why?" Spy spoofs are about as fresh as last week's fish, but that hasn't deterred director Peter Howitt (Anti-Trust) and two actual Bond-franchise screenwriters, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (isn't Bond already an insider's giggle?), from daring audiences to embrace another inept, wink-wink spy.

Enter Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), a clumsy, nerdy deskman elevated through silly circumstances to Britain's No. 1 agent. He's in haphazard pursuit of a French prison-developer, Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich). Sauvage, who has the luck to be a distant relative of the royal family, has a dastardly plan to turn England into a penal colony. (Real-life fun fact: England turned Australia into a penal colony. Bygones.)

Perhaps borrowing a cue from Robert DeNiro's tough-guy-midlife-crisis when he took on the role of Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Malkovich drops his icy indie cred to become English's nemesis. With a wig borrowed from Prince Valiant and an accent by way of Pepe LePew, he's more embarrassing than threatening. And the writers really dropped the ball on his villainy: His weapons couldn't be more dull -- two bodyguards, some muscle relaxant and a hidden camera. Might I suggest the sheer terror a 500-gallon tub of overripe brie might inspire?

Continuing the grand tradition of employing the unemployable, Howitt casts Australian pop singer Natalie Imbruglia as English's sexy foil, Lorna. Was every comic actress booked that month? Imbruglia has big eyes, plush lips, a tattoo above her bottom and very little talent. Also aiding English as his partner is Ben Miller, who has the thankless task of stacking the comedic set-ups block by obvious block so Atkinson can topple them.

Unfortunately, every joke is glaringly foreshadowed in this manner. Johnny English plods along, lacking that madcap verve and the wildly improbable set-ups that might have redeemed it. (The underrated 1997 Bill Murray spy spoof, The Man Who Knew Too Little, gets great mileage from the twist that its protagonist doesn't even know he's a secret agent.) English doesn't even fall back on the last resort of a crazy comedy: hurling so many gags -- good and bad -- at us that enough stick. It's pretty much set-up, joke, dead air, repeat. The movie plays like a rough draft where the team forgot to come back on Monday and write fresher jokes.

And all of this is a shame, because Atkinson is one funny guy, a gifted physical comedian whose rubbery twitchy face can make you laugh just to look at it. But when he gets his biggest laughs gyrating his bony body in his underwear, that's simply a cry for help.

Atkinson has logged more than two decades as a comic actor, highlighted by his two cult television shows, Black Adder and Mr. Bean -- both of which delighted audiences with their quirky characterizations. (Ironically, after beginning his career with stage and television work, Atkinson made his feature-film debut in a real James Bond movie, 1983's Never Say Never Again.) His sense of comic timing when the cocktail tray goes awry may be impeccable, but I'd have to wonder about his current grasp of what's amusingly novel. Mr. Bean could get 20 minutes of hilarity out of a stuck trouser zipper, but Johnny English merely trails wanly in the toilet-paper-strewn wake of Austin Powers, muttering hackneyed jokes about the French.

Johnny English was a big hit in its native U.K., where presumably gags about Archbishop of Canterbury's ass resonate more deeply. And I can't help but marvel at the unfortunate timing of the film's release. What with the Oval Office blaming the Brits for shoddy intelligence work, maybe the bumbling English spy routine isn't so funny? And doesn't fact always trump fiction: those forged Nigerian documents authorizing uranium sales, riddled with errors, that supposedly fooled the CIA? Now that's funny!

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