Blu-ray Review: ‘Johnny English Reborn’ Fails to Realize Comic Potential

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CHICAGO – Just as every country desires to have its own take on “The Office,” every country needs its own Clouseau. The sheer number of bumbling detectives in cinema are too vast to count, though a few deserve to stand out, such as Jean Dujardin’s suavely clueless OSS 117. Johnny English, on the other hand, deserves to be placed at the back of the crowd, in between Steve Martin and Roberto Benigni.

English is played by Rowan Atkinson, a comedic giant whose tremendous success on television has been difficult to repeat on the big screen. His most popular character, Mr. Bean, may be a crowd-pleaser on the small screen, but his grotesquely broad antics are rather tiresome to sit through in a full-length feature. In contrast, English is a far more tolerable character, yet his vehicles have fallen short of true comic inspiration. “Johnny English Reborn” is an improvement over its 2003 predecessor, but that isn’t saying much. Blu-ray Rating: 2.5/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 2.5/5.0

The film is a particular disappointment since it has all the necessary elements for a decent comedy. After Shaolin monks successfully teach English common sense by having him drag a boulder with his testicles (don’t ask), the detective returns to his British Intelligence team with a clearer-than-usual head. His new burst of competence is most apparent during an amusing rooftop chase, where English pursues a parkour expert by utilizing methods of pure logic. Yet when faced with an obvious mole in his team, correctly identified by his plucky assistant (nicely played by Daniel Kaluuya), English reverts into his same pattern of head-slapping idiocy. The contrived misunderstandings in Hamish McColl’s predictable script are considerably more irritating than they are entertaining. Where the film excels is in moments of understated physical humor, such as when English’s chair falters during a tense meeting, causing his head to bop up and down behind the conference table. It’s during this scene that one can imagine the much-needed levity Atkinson may have brought to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”’s stuffy seriousness.

Johnny English Reborn was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Feb. 28, 2012.
Johnny English Reborn was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Feb. 28, 2012.
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

What severely limits the film’s potential is director Oliver Parker’s insistence to keep the narrative moving forward, as if the filmmakers themselves have little patience for English’s shtick. Instead of taking a comic set-piece to the next level, Parker is all-too-content in remaining on the first one. Consider the scene where an assassin poses as the elderly mother of English’s boss, Pamlea (a wasted Gillian Anderson). English must run through the corridors of Pamela’s house and determine which little old lady is an imposter. This appears to be the set-up for an inspired sequence, but Parker doesn’t allow the scene to develop beyond a single pratfall.

Thus, the film is reduced to a collection of half-realized sketches enlivened only by the deadpan ingenuity of Atkinson. Whether he’s gagging on a voice-changing travel lozenge or applying lipstick in a zombie-like daze, the actor proves he’s still one of the most gifted comedians in the business. “Johnny English” is certainly the most kid-friendly of the spy spoof franchises, and certainly has the potential to delight undiscerning children. Everyone else is advised to stick with Lt. Frank Drebin’s timeless buffoonery in “Police Squad!” and “The Naked Gun,” which were too smart to get bogged down by a nonsensical plot. Come to think of it, “The Naked Gun” tackled a lot of the same material witnessed in “Johnny English Reborn.” English isn’t the first spy to have tackled Queen Elizabeth II (literally).

“Johnny English Reborn” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, French and Spanish audio tracks, and includes 40 minutes of deleted scenes that illustrate precisely where the film went wrong. In lengthy intros to each scene, Parker explains that many of the best comic bits had to be sacrificed in order to keep the plot chugging along. He didn’t want the film to devolve into an “episodic series of little plays,” yet by not allowing any sketch to evolve past its one-note set-up, he kills the potential of any true belly laughs. Among the funniest moments axed is the prideful English’s misinterpretation of the Mandarin dialect, an increasingly bizarre tour through the revamped MI7 headquarters and a hilarious added beat to the scene where English realizes that his prized key is missing during a presentation (he dubs the empty case a “visualization exercise”).

Other squeaky clean extras include a blooper reel complete with bleeped expletives, several behind-the-scenes featurettes (including one where a stuntman is clocked during rehearsal) and an audio commentary track in which Parker and McColl discuss the influence of “Bourne” films on the sequel. It was their intention to create a more realistic world and credible plot for English to work within, while making his spy skills somewhat more proficient. Their efforts were indeed successful—so much so that they make English’s moments of stupidity even more…well, stupid.

‘Johnny English Reborn’ is released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment and stars Rowan Atkinson, Daniel Kaluuya, Rosamund Pike, Dominic West and Gillian Anderson. It was written by Hamish McColl and directed by Oliver Parker. It was released on Feb. 28, 2012. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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