There’s something inherently quaint about James Bond spoofs these days. The Bond franchise may veer light or dark, grittily realistic or breezily escapist, but Bond parodies, spoofs, and homages all seem locked in the same ’70s time warp of free-flowing martinis, nifty gadgets, and regressive sexual politics. Johnny English Reborn, the tardy sequel to the 2003 international hit, takes place in the present, but tonally, it recalls a bygone era when Roger Moore led Ian Fleming’s iconic spy franchise merrily down the road to self-parody.
Rubber-faced Rowan Atkinson returns as the title character, a hotshot spy and unrepentant chauvinist who goes into seclusion in the Far East (à la Rambo and later MacGruber) after a mission goes horribly awry. He’s roped back into service years later to help track down a sinister organization that has planted moles in the world’s top spy agencies, and has designs on the Chinese premier. Gillian Anderson stops by to trot out an impeccable British accent and look pained during Atkinson’s trademark shenanigans, in a wasted performance as his much-embarrassed superior.
Johnny English Reborn’s sharpest gags riff on its protagonist’s unshakeable Britishness. In the film’s drollest joke, Atkinson uses an uncharacteristic bout of common sense to find solutions to his problems during a chase, while his adversary dramatically scurries over barbed wire and otherwise puts himself in woefully unnecessary danger. That bit of sly humor proves the exception rather than the rule: Johnny English Reborn is otherwise content to pursue the low-hanging fruit of indifferently executed physical-comedy setpieces, malfunctioning high-tech gizmos, and multiple shots to the groin. Atkinson gleans a few laughs from the contrast between his lascivious bedroom eyes and spastic physical comedy, but he can only do so much to elevate material this hopelessly mild.