It’s a little hard to believe that there have been three Johnny English movies since the character debuted on the big screen in 2003, but Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling secret agent remains quite popular in his native U.K., where Johnny English Strikes Again is already a box-office hit. Here in the U.S., the spy-comedy series is more of a cult curiosity, and its formula hasn’t changed at all since the first movie. For fans of Atkinson’s signature slapstick (which has reached a larger audience thanks to his Mr. Bean character), Strikes Again offers more of the same, with the title character repeatedly falling down, running headlong into obstacles, and declaring confidently that something will definitely never happen, right before that exact thing happens.
The plot is as creaky as the jokes, following a structure that recycles many of the elements from the first Johnny English adventure. The now-retired agent is called back into service when a hacker compromises the identities of every other operative at covert division MI7. Reunited with his trusty sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), who does all of the actual spy work and frequently covers for his boss’ ineptitude, English sets out to track down the person responsible for a series of such cyber attacks, which have crippled transportation and infrastructure in London.
At the same time, the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson, clearly delighted to be in a Johnny English movie) is courting arrogant American tech billionaire Jason Volta (Jake Lacy) to manage all of the data operations for the U.K. government. Could there possibly be a connection between the smarmy Volta and the mysterious technological strikes? The answer is so obvious that even Johnny English figures it out, although the movie still has to go through the motions of revealing Volta’s sinister plan and taking him down.
Along the way, English finds new ways to bump into things, wandering into traffic while wearing a virtual-reality headset (in an interminable, moronic set piece that makes very little sense) and setting fire to a fancy French restaurant. He flirts awkwardly with a Russian secret agent (Olga Kurylenko), but the movie remains entirely kid-friendly, barely even earning its PG rating. The series is a vague parody of the James Bond movies (actual Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade worked on the first installment, and Kurylenko is a former Bond girl), but there’s no specific satire, just the addition of Atkinson’s familiar pratfalls to a generic spy plot.
That approach has worn pretty thin after three movies, and while Atkinson remains limber, most of the humor hasn’t aged nearly as well. Oftentimes Strikes Again will set up a comedic premise only to abandon it halfway through, skipping to the next scene before English and Bough have extricated themselves from their latest ridiculous predicament. The plotting is full of lazy inconsistencies, with only a rudimentary idea of how technology works. There’s a sense of weary obligation throughout the movie, and even the special effects aren’t putting in much effort. At the beginning of the movie, English is living in happy retirement as a boarding-school teacher, and it would probably be best if he was just left there in peace.