Johnny English Strikes Again is an unfortunate movie. It feels like it ran out of something; maybe it was time, maybe it was interest, but it was probably money. What could have been another classic Rowan Atkinson vehicle has ended up a hollow and corporate mess, and yet the occasional scene had the crowd howling with laughter so I think it’s worth at least talking about.
Rowan Atkinson does an exceptional job recapturing the self-assured idiocy of Johnny English which is a joy to watch. Ben Miller, returning as Bough, is equally great. Their interplay is as charming as ever, almost everything that works in this film is down to those two. There are some legitimately good sequences. A delightfully silly car chase at the end of the second act had me grinning, and a prolonged sequence in the middle involving VR was so spectacularly entertaining it alone was almost worth the price of admission. A decent number of the jokes land and the British cringe humour is just as potent as ever.
But man, that’s all the positivity I can muster. So much of this movie is painful to watch. Emma Thompson plays an unnamed prime minister and is just terrible. Wooden, inconsistent, and awkward; it’s like she doesn’t want to be there. The villain ‘Jason Volta’ played by Jake Lacy is both written and performed abysmally. A moment where he punches the ceiling of his car in frustration might actually be the worst acting I’ve ever seen in theatres. His introduction is effectively a TED Talk wherein he babbles complete technical gibberish before the film cuts away to the prime minister assuring you he definitely is a tech genius billionaire. Oh and his plan is nonsense. Not classic pulpy spy nonsense, more “the hell do you even want?” nonsense.
The editing is never anything more than mediocre. There are multiple times where cuts drag on leaving scenes feeling uncomfortably stilted. There is no creative cinematography outside of a couple in the previously mentioned VR scene and this is not helped by the almost comically bad CGI. The production quality here is amateur at best.
But it gets worse. Very minor spoilers ahead, but trust me, you shouldn’t care. Let’s start with the product placement. There is an extended car chase between an Aston Martin and a new BMW IS3. The whole thing is shot exactly like a car advert, topped off with Bough explaining to the audience how amazing the IS3 is. It’s depressing to watch. There is one excellent joke near the end of the sequence but it can’t fix a broken sequence. Characters periodically admire phones or tablets centre stage while stating how great they are, and occasionally even quoting specs like it’s a promo for Carphone Warehouse. The final confrontation memorably involves Ophelia (the worst spy in any Johnny English film. Let that sink in.), played by Olga Kurylenko, running out with a Samsung Galaxy tablet and effectively screaming “this will save the day”. And then it does.
But even those problems are overshadowed by the structural issues. It feels like there were some very hasty changes made during production, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the originally planned third act was scrapped in favour of a much cheaper alternative. At the start, Johnny is shown working as an English teacher while secretly training his students in espionage. The film is screaming “these kids will help save the day” at the top of its lungs. The conclusion of the second act would so perfectly transition to his defeated return to school that I was genuinely stunned when the very next scene squanders all that build-up so anticlimactically.
I’m fairly certain Atkinson and Thompson were never on set together, scenes they share never actually show them in the same shot. If you told me she was brought in for some last minute additions in order to establish that replacement third act, I’d believe it, and it would explain her complete apathy during the rest of the film. It was also heavily telegraphed that Johnny might find love in and settle down with Ophelia, but of course this never pays off either. They don’t even get as much as a goodbye. There had to have been some heavy handed rewrites because I refuse to believe Rowan Atkinson would come back for this script.
Look, this film is infuriating. I wanted to love it, I was so on board when I sat down in the theatre that had it been even mediocre I probably would have raved about it. But it’s just bad. There are good scenes, but they’ll be equally good on YouTube as standalone clips in a couple of months. Don’t go to the cinema for this, it’s not worth your money.