Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English hasn’t changed a bit in the nearly two decades since he originated in a series of credit card commercials before landing his own spinoff feature. Today, he remains an analog spy in a digital world, equally uncomfortable with smartphones, electric cars, and women in power. Yet rather than engage with the idiot-savant spy’s outmoded beliefs and tactics or examine how his self-professed “old-school” masculinity functions in the midst of a post-Brexit England where the prime minister (Emma Thompson) is female, David Kerr’s lifeless Johnny English Strikes Again simply coasts on the series’s low stakes and bland, outdated spoofing of pre-Daniel Craig-era James Bond plot devices and characterizations.
The film’s juvenile humor is clearly pitched toward kids, but that makes it all the more baffling that the targets of its satire will now only be recognized by those too old to be amused by Johnny English’s simple-minded antics. Opening with the hacking of the British Intelligence agency MI7 and the swift introduction of a Jeff Bezos-like villain, Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), this third entry in the Johnny English series takes an initial stab at relevancy. But these attempts to grapple with the effects of technology on modern politics are quickly thwarted as the paper-thin plot—in which Volta almost instantaneously convinces the PM to store all of England’s top-secret data on his company’s private network—devolves into little more than a smokescreen for a series of loosely connected and uninspired bits of physical humor.
Relying on such arcane gags as prat falls in knight’s armor, fake French accents, and an array of gadget-based explosions, Johnny English Strikes Again seems almost hellbent on aiming for the lowest common denominator at every turn. A brief reprieve offering some choice bits of lunacy comes in the form of a lengthy scene where Johnny tests out virtual reality goggles and accidentally wanders around London accosting innocent bystanders. This sequence injects a much-needed anarchic spirit into a film that’s otherwise paint-by-numbers. So it’s unsurprising that as soon as the scene ends, Atkinson and company quickly return to business as usual with age-old bits where characters slip on fruit or accidentally blow things up.
Atkinson’s unwavering energy, even in the most asinine sequences, is laudable simply for the actor’s sheer commitment. However, the very nature of his character necessitates an adherence to spy-film clichés that not only don’t play to the actor’s strengths, but lead to inconsistencies where Johnny English is suave and proficient in one scene and a bumbling fool the next. It’s as if the filmmakers and Atkinson wanted to make a Mr. Bean film but were forced to repeatedly return to parodying 007 in order to justify Johnny English Strikes Again‘s existence. With comedic material this lackluster and unimaginative, though, the restrictions of genre are really the least of the problems.