Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Johnny English Strikes Again (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: The database of MI7 has been hacked, compromising the identities of every active agent in the organisation. Left with no other alternative, the British Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) brings in retired agent and now school teacher Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson). With the aid of his partner Bough (Ben Miller), Johnny sets out to find out who was behind the hack, finding trails that lead him to the mysterious Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko) and technology magnate Jason Volta (Jake Lacy). Shame he's still a little too dense to realize that.

Atkinson has always been an ideal fit for this brand of bumbling not-so-secret agent, between his comfort in the character’s frequent bouts of Dunning-Kruger and how well he pulls off the suaveness of a legit action spy… before he shoves an umbrella up his nose, of course. This is no exception, and while it’s great seeing him and Miller teaming up again, they are once again set back by material that only just engages their comedic talents. Atkinson’s skill at pantomime can only do so much to help these jokes. Emma Thompson, while allowing for some decent ribbing of real-life PM Theresa May (the costuming and hair styling is too close to be a coincidence), falls into the same flailing attempts to punch up the written material. Lacy pretty much turns his intentionally token role in Their Finest into a reality as the token American villain, who again ties into some of the British conservatism that keeps poking through the cracks but only as far as the script lets him. Kurylenko is rather bland as the pseudo-Bond girl of the story, only having incredulous confusion as the reaction for any given scene, and Adam James as the new Pegasus makes for the blandest portrayal yet.

Judging this film as far as comedy value goes seems like something that could be taken for granted, considering the absolute nadir that the series started with back in 2003. It couldn’t even compete with the actual Bond film that came out that year, Die Another Day, meaning that even with two shared co-writers between them, it failed to surpass self-parody. There is nowhere to go but up from there, and while this film doesn’t grind a singular joke into the ground quite as hard as that piece of work, it’s still unfortunately inconsistent. English’s over-confidence wrestling with under-competence does get milked for what ends up being some rather lacklustre humour, but credit to Atkinson and Miller for making it at least somewhat palatable here. The individual set pieces show that we’ve gone from the highly bombastic and polished approach that Johnny English Reborn took (for the better, might I add), to the more simplistic take of the original. Director David Kerr’s biggest claim to cinematic framing is working on the highly surreal Inside No. 9, and that familiarity with a smaller screen shows in how piecemeal a lot of this feels. On a scene-by-scene basis, at least.

The broader attempts at genre parody, as weak as the individual jokes get, has always had some real bite to it in this series. Yes, the original still sucks on toast, but the villain’s plot of taking over the British Empire and turning the UK into a giant prison? That smacks of glorious exaggeration combined with that oh-so-British politique; it fits. Reborn went for the more Mission: Impossible style of spy caper, complete with tenuous attempts to turn the hero’s own allies against them and point-blank obvious reveals for the real turncoat. This film goes in a different direction from that still, aiming for the technophobic, high-tech spy thrillers that have captured the zeitgeist over the last several years. While Lacy may be a bit of a milquetoast antagonist, his place as the highly technological enemy hiding in plain sight definitely taps into current worries regarding hackers. Of course, that’s just the setup for the film’s brand of British intelligence to spring forth: Subverting his high falootin’ computers with old-fashioned analog technology. This allows for the film’s strongest gags, like a super-powered exoskeleton that operates by floppy disk or a bright-red, gas-guzzling Aston Martin being the best vehicle to lay low in due to the lack of GPS tracking. It gives the sense that this is a parody with a thin skin but surprisingly hearty insides.

Of course, that ends up tying into the film’s political bent and… well, let’s just say that ‘Britain’ and ‘conservatism’ is the kind of combination that makes for a lot of head-tilts at what the film is really aiming at. Now, admittedly, this isn’t that big of a problem on its own terms; I mean, the Kingsman films have their own forms of conservatism built into them, and they still work as fun action-spy flicks. However, what is found here is a bit suspect. Aside from the Theresa May stand-in, the whole ‘low-tech’ stance of the film’s leads ends up leaning less towards “subverting the enemy” and more “we don’t need these foreigners running things, and if we let them, they’ll take over”. Same intent behind John Malkovich’s character in the original, but with the added connections to real-world Britain of today. As much as I would love to just ditch this film entirely to go over the extensive headaches surrounding Brexit, UKIP, and the Internet media ties that only serve to make both of those aspects more egregious, that only amounts to external context; hardly the first thing on the mind of a film that ends with possible traumatising of children.

But here’s the thing: Focusing on the political ideas that could have influenced this work? It’s far more interesting than discussing the actual film. That is ultimately what holds it back, and why it’s honestly kind of disappointing against what I consider to be a commendable improvement with Reborn. When dealing with a series that has been around for 15 years by now, the least that can be expected is a genuine reason for it to still be going. Yeah, the almighty dollar factors in, but on the less cynical side of things, what does this film amount to? Well, it’s just a middle ground for the series as a whole. It’s not nearly as one-note as the original, yet it lacks the more substantive narrative of Reborn. Not as irritating as the first, but not as fun as the second. That, more than anything else, feels like commentary on the culture that made it: Settle for mild improvement over the past, and if anyone questions it, fumble until something just happens to go right.

All in all, this is okay for what it is but what it is ain’t much. The acting is mostly fine, even if the supporting cast appears to have been chosen for rather cynical reasons, the writing shows short-term blandness but decent long-term parodic aspirations, most of which end up hitting the mark, and while the production values are decent enough, it doesn’t really do much to hold the audience’s attention. At a time when spy flicks are only getting more and more overblown and ridiculous, something this middling just doesn’t cut it for trying to poke fun at that very sub-genre. And on top of that, looking deeper into the film’s political subtext unearths some… well, rather telling things about where it was created and at what time.

It ranks lower than The Commuter, as my recollection of that film from back in January is still more positive than my recollection of this film from only a couple hours ago. Johnny English Strikes Again keeps the series from devolving back in the early-2000’s grand irritation, but it doesn’t fill that void with anything all that necessary. However, as disappointing as this turned out with how much I surprisingly got into Reborn, it still doesn’t make my heart sink as low as Skyscraper did, a film where the literal architecture is the most interesting thing about the production in all regards.

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