Be it Mr. Bean or Johnny English, very few actors (or characters) have managed to divide an audience as sharply as Rowan Atkinson. On one side, there are those who adore his comedy and associate childhood nostalgia with him, and on the other are those who despise him passionately and dismiss him as silly and mildly disgusting. While I was purchasing a ticket for a Friday morning show, a middle-aged lady vociferously expressed her disdain for Atkinson and turned away from the ticket counter, but the auditorium boasted of a fairly good turnout, visibly made up of Atkinson admirers, who laughed aloud at every goofy move he made. It’s quite a pity then that the film doesn’t support the actor with enough innovative gags that match up to his artistry, especially considering there is a dedicated audience waiting to lap up all of his tomfooleries.
Atkinson’s appeal is rooted in physical humour, which is an increasingly rare sight in contemporary comedies. In Johnny English Strikes Again, he has visibly aged but his penchant for goofiness remains. As the U.K.’s Prime Minister (a sprightly Emma Thompson) faces the threat of cyberwarfare, her intelligence agency summons Johnny from his retired life as a school teacher to stop an imminent attack. “The country is in a state of complete chaos,” she announces, making you wonder of a tacit Brexit implication (she is styled like Theresa May, after all). The threat is a digital one but Johnny’s combat is analogue, which is quite funny in moments when he uses a telephone booth to make calls by inserting coins as the antagonist escapes, but quite banal when he is struggling with technology like Virtual Reality. As the film progresses, the situations he is placed in are funnier in concept than execution.
Johnny is an inept spy who is unable to be discreet, but not absurdly stupid and childlike as Mr. Bean, who is blithely unaware of social norms and manners. Johnny, therefore, tries at being more than the innate klutz that he is. For instance, he puts on a chucklesome French accent in a Southern France restaurant and slips in “Danke schön” (German) as French. But then, for some gems like these, you have to endure sequences when Johnny magically and often inexplicably saves the day. That’s the problem with Strikes Again — it resists from being uninhibitedly silly, for ultimately, Atkinson has to be the saviour and a semblance of logic must prevail. If only the film had let go and allowed Atkinson to unleash his much-needed analogue humour in a rather dry digital age.