ROWAN Atkinson’s return to the big screen as Johnny English – the parody of Britain’s best known secret agent – was as surprising an announcement as its debut outing eight years ago.
Turning on James Bond, a character as highly distinguished as the Queen to us Brits, and as sacred as fish and chips on a Friday, was bold.
Not least because of the overwhelming sense of national pride every time one of Ian Fleming’s novels hits Hollywood, but because 007 is as British as it gets.
And mocking Bond was like wiping your nose with the Union Jack.
But it worked, and, in doing so, injected new life into what was in danger of becoming a tired old tradition.
The next Bond instalment, Casino Royale, released three years later, was a hit. Shaken, stirred? Daniel Craig’s portrayal didn’t give a damn, remember? A breath of fresh air.
So, with very few expecting a sequel, Johnny English Reborn was in danger of jumping the shark itself.
The story continues with the former secret agent training in the martial arts in a remote village in middle Asia, banished from MI7 after a mishap in Mozambique.
Cut from the same mould as Batman Begins, English is put through his paces in a bid to become stronger and taught to endure more pain than the average man.
What he lacks in skill, he makes up with age, though.
But his SOS call from Westminster comes before he acquires the necessary skills to graduate this particular School of Life. Not for the first time, you sense.
A meeting with the top wigs at London HQ reveals a plot to assassinate the Chinese premier, offering English his chance for redemption.
Now, under the strict guile of Pegasus (Gillian Anderson) the bumbling agent must utilise the very latest in modern technology and elaborate gadgets to bring down the bad guys and save the premier’s life.
Tim McInnerny, who worked with Atkinson in the Blackadder TV series, takes up the role of Quartermain – English’s equivalent of Q.
He shows him the best inventions British minds can muster, ranging from a mobile phone fitted with an explosive, a Rolls Royce which obeys to voice recognition, and a digital camera that shoots bullets.
It also gives English the chance to test out some of his witty one-liners, much to the amusement of the audience.
Accompanied by the young and eager Tucker, an up and coming agent, the two set off to speak to their only lead in solving the case, only to be undone by a trigger happy Asian cleaner, whose ingenious disguise prompts English to help her escape - showing chivalry isn’t dead quite yet.
The action-packed sequence which follows involves a boat chase and the opportunity for English to show off his new powers of self-defence with a bare-knuckle fight on a raft.
They return to London only to be embarrassed further and learn the assassination plot is masterminded by KGB, CIA and MI7 - the same trio who mastered his downfall in Mozambique.
English goes in search of the mole in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, aided by the staff behavioural psychologist Kate Sumner (Rosamund Pike, who featured in Die Another Day) and Tucker.
Over an intimate dinner, Sumner reveals she is harbouring feelings for English - ‘For a while now I’ve found you intriguing, clinically,’ she says to his surprise.
It is the pick of a field in bloom of well-crafted lines, warming up what was otherwise a bitterly cold Sunday evening.
On this evidence spy comedy admirers should anticipate a third instalment rather more than they did the second, or first.
by Matt Brooks
Star rating HHHH