Johnny English
Directed by Peter Howitt
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and William Davies
Starring Rowan Atkinson


Johnny English

There's a trick to physical comedy that very few practitioners these days seem to know: the person performing the act, pratfall, take or gesture must be absolutely, totally focussed on that act to the exclusion of anything else. In other words, No Self-Awareness. No giggles, no smirking at the audience, no knowing winks. One of the reasons why we recall the Monty Python troupe with such love is that they played every scene straight. It's why the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker comedies still work; and it's the reason Chaplin and Keaton are immortal; they never broke the barrier between themselves and the audience. And the actor's self-consciousness is why you don't laugh when you're expected to at most comedies these days.

Which brings us to Rowan Atkinson, a comic of limited wit but impeccable timing. He made his reputation (a cult reputation in this country) with two British television series that showed two different personas: the sly political scoundrel Blackadder, in a tour through the history of English royal intrigues; and the fearful Bean, whose spastic takes were the exact opposite of Blackadder. He carried them off well; one only wishes the series were better written.

Now he's here in "Johnny English," as a low-level spy for the British Secret Service, who's pressed into action because every other spy above him has been killed. A sly Frenchman, Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), who's made his fortune as the owner of thousands of privatized prisons around the world is plotting to take over the British throne, which he has some distant claim to through an 18th century forebear (he gets Elizabeth to agree to relinquish her crown by threatening to shoot her dog). To kick off his plot, and the film, he has stolen the British crown jewels; it is up to Johnny English to recapture them.

For the most part Atkinson's comedy consists of a sight gag followed by a wordless take as he realizes what he's done. Like Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau he's completely sure of himself, but also like Clouseau he's forever pressing the wrong button, with disastrous results, then slowly comprehending what happened and moving on. He has the gift of stillness when other comedians might go crazy; his body doesn't move as he registers the event, but a little shift of the eyes lets us know that it's registered.

"Johnny English" is witty, though a little too frenetically directed by Peter Howitt; but Malkovich, an actor who's actually lived in France for the past twenty years, puts on the wrong French accent for his role - a caricature rolling of his r's, a broad American pronunciation - when he should be playing more authentically French. So the film moves in fits and starts, with moments that work and minutes that don't. But you can't have everything these days.