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Published: Friday, 7/18/2003

Movie review: Johnny English **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Would whoever has stolen and soiled the much-picked-over carcass of James Bond, please return him to his rightful place as a symbol of stiff-upper-lip British resolve, and keep the jokes to yourself, thank you.

Bond spoofs are so tired and routine these days that there are more spoofs of Bond films than actual Bond films. What hasn't been spoofed and desecrated with appropriate lunacy by Austin Powers and his polyester flower power has been parodied - with diminishing returns - by the Spy Kids movies and Agent Cody Banks and Undercover Brother and Spy Hard.

Have you the energy for one more wacky variation on the Aston Martin ejector seat?

Johnny English would appreciate it, because that's all it has the imagination for. That and the silly dance floor tango, the pistol that falls apart at inopportune times (every time), the misused 007 gadget, the steely mock suavity on a dim-bulb agent who completes his mission despite flubbing every step of the way. All the greatest hits, again. (I suppose it's no surprise the film is not an adaptation of a comic book or sitcom, but a British credit card commercial.)

In this latest Bond spoof, English is Bond as channeled through Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau. Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean, plays English and he is very British - gently naughty and quiet and old-fashioned about his laughs. With his bug eyes and big ears and faint air of lecherousness, Atkinson seems to be the love child of a guppy and Benny Hill, with the generic coding of limber, stone-faced silent film comedians like Buster Keaton.

“He might be a fool,” English's archenemy says, “but he's a fool who keeps showing up.” Atkinson might want to have that line printed on his business cards. His mix of Hugh Grant stammering and guttural sounds and undauntable cluelessness is ideal character actor material. He will be employed forever. His eyebrows alone give a movie some laughs.

That villain, incidentally, is French and played with a wonderfully ridiculous accent by John Malkovich. His evil plot: Crown himself King of England. What a weird, funny idea. But except for a few inspired moments near the end that involve the Archbishop of Canterbury and a rump roast, this is strictly PBS silliness: slip-ups and someone says, “This is the most secure location in all the British Isles” (cue explosion) and mistaken identity and whatnot. And PBS silliness is one part poise, two parts dead air, three parts dumb lines spoken with a charming accent, and four parts Bob Hope retro gags - and Johnny English feels as old as he is.



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