Well, I guess this proves that Americans aren’t the only ones apt to characterize the French as obnoxious, power-hungry fops. In the UK spy spoof Johnny English, villainous Gallic entrepreneur Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) concocts an evil plan to ascend to the British throne and—in what seems like a lunatic homage to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York—turn Great Britain into an enormous island prison. Since all of her majesty’s secret agents have been assassinated, it’s up to Rowan Atkinson’s titular clown, a desk jockey who’s always dreamed of being a suave undercover superspy, to foil Sauvage’s evil scheme with the help of a sultry sidekick/love interest (Natalie Imbruglia). Conceptually similar to the Jackie Chan misfire The Tuxedo except with Atkinson’s rubber-limbed antics replacing Chan’s CGI-enhanced pogo-stick acrobatics, the film amounts to little more than a series of incidents in which English makes a complete ass of himself—if he’s not inappropriately dancing on a coffin during a funeral or prancing about his bathroom in underwear singing into the mirror, he’s pantsing the Archbishop of Canterbury in front of a worldwide television audience. Atkinson’s goofy characters rely on a conflict between their unwarranted self-confidence and utter incompetence, and every once in a while the performer’s spindly escapades are good for a laugh. Watching the comedian mistakenly try to pull off a suspected criminal’s mask, however, merely highlights the redundancy of such a comedic premise in the wake of Austin Powers and its postmodern brethren. Malkovich’s Sauvage has a French accent that would make Pepe le Peu proud (example: “Eleemeenate ‘eem!”), but the film is so fixated on Atkinson’s gags that, instead of elevating Sauvage to grand caricature, it merely reduces him to petulant megalomaniacal sideshow. Given the disastrous PR campaign being waged by the French Government’s Tourist Office on American shores (highlighted by spokesman Woody Allen discussing his desire to French kiss Soon Yi), I’m sure Jacques Chirac wouldn’t be happy to hear that the biggest laugh garnered at the media screening I attended came in response to Atkinson’s quip, “The only thing the French should be allowed to host is an invasion.”
- Peter Howitt
- Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, William Davies
- Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller, Tim Pigott-Smith, Kevin McNally, Oliver Ford Davies, John Malkovich
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