Sometimes older is better: art. Wine. Spies.
Granted, not everyone would agree with that last entry. Secret agents need a certain amount of agility to thwack evildoers in the craw and a full head of hair to convince femme fatales not to be quite so … fatale. Certainly one needs to be up on the latest spy-related gizmos: One can’t get much mileage out of an exploding snuff box today.
And indeed, the 21st century has brought about its share of contemporary challenges for would-be spies. These days, clandestine conflicts aren’t waged with weaponized shoes or acid-shooting fountain pens, but in the binary realm of ones and zeros. Technology rules the modern roost, and those who don’t understand it are liable to get kicked out of the coop.
Take Great Britain, for instance. In this new world, jolly old England is feeling distinctly less jolly, unquestionably more old. Oh, the country has its share of Wi-Fi hotspots, of course, but the government’s tech-dependent services keep getting hacked. And that’s a problem: All the traffic lights turn red at the same time and stay that way. All the empire’s trains are rerouted to a sleepy little stop up north. And worse yet, the identities of all its secret agents have been compromised.
What’s a prime minister to do? Britain’s current leader decides she needs to attack the problem from two fronts.
First, she hopes to gussy up the empire’s laggard tech with help from Jason Xander, a strapping young digital guru who promises the world to countries that sign on with him. (It’s a metaphorical promise, by the way. Promising countries the world in a literal fashion seems like just asking for problems.) And just a little of Jason’s vaunted technical expertise could be the key to making Britain Great again.
Second, the prime minister wants the hacking culprit or culprits stopped. Alas, given the decided lack of secrecy for the island nation’s secret agents at present, the PM lacks the manpower to launch such a covert investigation.
No problem: Just yank an old agent out of retirement, shall we? But the only one able and upright enough to answer the call (like, literally, upright—the rest are all sleeping) is English. Johnny English.
Suave (or so he thinks).
Dangerous (but not in the way he’d like).
And, of course, he carries a license to trip.
Johnny English goes to increasingly outlandish lengths to serve and protect queen and country—at one juncture ignoring a direct order to step away from the case. Whether he does so out of love of country or love of his own self-image (or, perhaps, a little of both) is up for debate.
Frankly, Johnny’s better as a teacher—which is what he’s doing when the government calls him to reenlist. He clearly cares about his students (though his spy-centric lessons appear to stray from the geography course he’s supposed to be teaching), and his students return his affection. And should they ever find need to disarm a bomb or conceal themselves through elaborate camouflage, they’ll be … well, perhaps better prepared than some.
Johnny also inspires loyalty from his adjunct, Bough (whom Johnny calls “Buff”). Ophelia, a rival Russian spy, is ordered to kill Johnny, but it’s clear she’d rather not. That might make her a lesser spy, but a marginally better person.
The prime minister suggests that the universe has it out for her at one juncture. “Up the universe’s a–!” she exclaims.
Johnny accidentally exposes the lower half of himself to a great many people (including press photographers). They see him from the front (though someone quickly covers im up), while movie audiences are exposed to his bare backside.
Ophelia wears some clingy and slightly revealing eveningwear. She and Johnny engage in a great deal of flirtation (though she’s a more reluctant participant than he is), and the two dance together at a nightclub. The prime minister waxes eloquent about Jason’s youthful vigor and physique.
During the credits, we hear Snoop Dogg’s crass and suggestive song “Move.”
In what is supposed to be a virtual training exercise, Johnny instead walks out of the training facility and (virtual headset firmly strapped on his face) dives into the wilds of London, attacking several people. He smashes someone’s head with a book. He pummels a waiter with loaves of bread. He pushes a wheelchair-bound lady into a busy street. And he batters a tour guide with a shoe, eventually tossing the guy over the side of a double-decker bus. (We later see emergency personnel attend to the man.) Johnny also battles honest-to-goodness bad guys at times, too, though sometimes with lesser success. (A few are successfully knocked out, though.)
Ophelia tries to kill Johnny with a garrote during a dance at a nightclub: Johnny, clueless, eventually grabs her hands and flings her over his back in an apparent dance move, knocking her out cold. One of Johnny’s students also garrotes someone as part of an overzealous demonstration, and Johnny makes references to the strangling practice at other times, as well.
Johnny falls over the side of a ship, only to land hard on the deck below. He shoots a tear gas missile at some French bicyclists, causing them to crash along the side of the road, some apparently knocked unconscious. Johnny slips and falls repeatedly. Someone fires a gun at another character who’s encased in a suit of armor: The bullets have no effect. A missile blows up a ship. Guns are brandished. We hear about the grotesque physical effects of explosive gummy bears designed by the British Secret Intelligence Service, and a man is about to bite into one before the camera cuts away.
People drive incredibly recklessly. Children slide down an impromptu and dangerous-looking zipline. Part of a pen explodes, and the chemical inside knocks three people unconscious. A raft inflates inside a car, painfully pushing its occupants against the vehicle’s windows. Johnny inadvertently burns down a posh restaurant. (We see flames a billowing as he and Bough make a hasty getaway.)
One use each of “a–” and “d–n,” and two of “h—.” British vulgarities such as “b–locks,” “bloody” and the mild oath “crikey” are also heard. God’s name is misused about 10 times, and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Johnny’s given two sets of colorful but unlabeled pills—one set an extremely powerful stimulant, the other set containing a sedative. When struggling to fall asleep, he takes the wrong pill—with predictable results.
The prime minister says that it took her “two bottles of wine” and several sleeping pills to nod off one evening. She later asks for a vodka tonic with “no ice, no tonic.”
Ophelia and Johnny have drinks at a bar. Ophelia, feeling homesick, orders a Moscow Mule. Not to be outdone, Johnny orders a drink that he professes comes from his homeland, one that includes gin, vodka, sherry and “just a little bit of parmesan.” We see wine and champagne at other junctures, too—including a bottle that’s used to extinguish some flaming shrimp.
The Snoop Dogg song “Move” (in the credits) contains references to alcohol.
Johnny lies frequently—often as part of his job as a spy, but just as often simply to cover up his own incompetence. He and Bough pilfer a phone. Johnny can be rather arrogant, too.
We hear a reference to prostate surgery and the press “wetting” itself.
Johnny English Strikes Again is the third film in the Johnny English franchise—the titular character of which is the creation of beloved British comedian Rowan Atkinson. But beloved as Atkinson may well be, his character here is lacking.
Johnny English is a mashup of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame—both superior series when compared to Johnny English’s tired, telegraphed attempts at humor.
‘Course, you could make the case that the English franchise is still more family friendly than films anchored by either Bond or Clouseau (at least in Clouseau’s 1960s-70s iteration, with Peter Sellers at the helm). And that case has some justification. While English aspires to be a womanizer, both his ineptitude and the movie’s restraint keep anyone from actually making it to the bedroom. And while Johnny English may consider himself dangerous, most of the dangers he poses are to himself and to innocent bystanders.
But for a PG-rated film, Johnny English Strikes Again still falls disappointingly short. Johnny’s bare backside was certainly nothing I cared to see. And some of the language was nothing I cared to hear, either.
Johnny English is no James Bond. But he’s no great friend to the family, either.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.