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Movie Review

Johnny English Reborn

Reborn? This Johnny English is more of same.

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By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / October 21, 2011

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Much of British funnyman Rowan Atkinson’s considerable appeal lies in the unpredictable. Whether playing bumbling Mr. Bean or tweaking history in his farcical “Blackadder’’ series, he’s made a career out of keeping us wondering what random, excruciating predicament he’ll get into next. Atkinson’s 2003 James Bond spoof, “Johnny English,’’ while certainly agreeable, was hemmed in by its inclination to follow espionage conventions, rather than go completely “Austin Powers’’ - loony. (No coincidence that the movie’s comic chases and gunplay were outshone by, say, Atkinson literally dancing on someone’s grave.) After a fast, funny start, the new sequel, “Johnny English Reborn,’’ proves to be more of the same.

The movie opens with bearded, beatific English off at a Tibetan monastery, keeping everything Zen after a botched mission that got him booted from British intelligence, and left him with a nervous eye twitch. (Call it Atkinson rounding out his “Pink Panther’’ riff with a nod to Herbert Lom.) It’s the intro of “Batman Begins’’ redone with mind-over-matter gags about shaking off hits to the crotch - sophomoric, but good for giggles.

The whatever-sticks approach continues when English’s MI-7 superiors decide they need him back to help foil an assassination plot. He returns to an office that’s now been amusingly, inexplicably branded as “Toshiba British Intelligence’’ under the direction of its slick new boss (Gillian Anderson, again slipping into her go-to British accent). He’s dispatched to China for a sequence that’s less about general 007 lampooning than about specifically, goofily co-opting the “Casino Royale’’ co-opting of parkour. Even a more familiar scene of English fumbling through the agency’s gadget lab has good, sharp comic energy.

But then the stale requisites start piling up. English and his newbie partner (likable Daniel Kaluuya, playing a borderline stereotype) make a helicopter getaway that barely gets off the ground. English zips through London in a spy-accessorized wheelchair. And director Oliver Parker, whose signature credits are adaptations of “An Ideal Husband’’ and “The Importance of Being Earnest,’’ makes clear why Oscar Wilde isn’t necessarily ideal training ground for action comedy. Maybe he and the writers could have focused on giving Dominic West (“The Wire’’) something wittier to do as English’s dashing rival. Ditto for Anderson, and for former Bond girl Rosamund Pike as a sexy agency boffin with her eye on English.

Atkinson gets back to what he does best in a wrap-up that’s got him sporting lipstick and matching “The Naked Gun’’ when it comes to giving her majesty the queen some pretty mortifying royal treatment. But “Johnny English’’ would have needed a whole lot more of this to feel genuinely reborn.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN Directed by: Oliver Parker

Written by: Hamish McColl, from a story by William Davies

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominic West, Gillian Anderson, and Rosamund Pike

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: PG (mild action violence, rude humor, some language and brief sensuality)

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