British comedian Rowan Atkinson, the man behind Mr. Bean, is back with another installment of the Johnny English spy spoofs. Johnny English Strikes Again follows the last spy anyone wants on the case as he takes a job to stop a hacker wreaking havoc on London’s infrastructure. Britain’s prime minister (Emma Thompson) has no choice but to pull English out of retirement when the hacker exposes the identities of all of Britain’s undercover intelligence officers.
Speaking over the phone, Atkinson explains the irreverent humor that fuels his movies, which continue to
He says there’s something to the humor that audiences find thrilling with repeat viewings. “I must say they seem to have a longevity,” he says of his Johnny English movies. “One of the reasons why we've been able to leave such a long gap between the movies, ten years and now seven years — we're not exactly The Fast and the Furious — is because they have a repeatability, I think, particularly for children. They're very good for sort of sick 14-year-olds. They seem to identify with them and don't have the hangups that some more adult viewers have.”
One of the criticisms that dog these films is that the jokes don’t come fast enough. Film critics, particularly American reviewers, often praise comedies that roll from one joke into another at a quick clip. That's a very different approach from the humor in the films of Jacques Tati, a longtime influence on Atkinson. “You can sort of see the joke or you can hear the joke trembling over the horizon, long before you actually see it,” he says about the Tati influence. “You know that whatever Johnny English does... he’s gonna fail, and we’re going to enjoy that failure, but the failure in many ways doesn’t surprise you. You just know that it’s coming. You’re just wondering when.”
Beyond Atkinson's old-fashioned brand of juvenile humor, nostalgia also plays a role in the plot of Johnny English Strikes Again. In this latest installment, it’s up to English to unmask the villain by embracing untraceable, unhackable technology. That’s why he chooses a 1981 Aston Martin Vantage Zagato V8 to pursue his nemesis rather than the hybrid cars he’s offered by British Intelligence.
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“It’s this sort of semi-nostalgic thing, I suppose,” Atkinson admits. “I just find it
Atkinson recognizes that these instances will appeal to an older audience, but it’s something today’s teenagers can get into as well. He describes it as more than nostalgia, referring to it as something “elemental.” He explains, “I think we all feel that the world is advancing faster than our ability to accommodate it. There is this general feeling that things are just expanding — the possibilities of artificial intelligence… Oh, aye, aye, aye, where are we going? What’s gonna happen?”
So maybe the “sick 14-year-olds” are ill on a more existential level, and a dose of humor from a veteran comedian who remembers a day when things were slower is what the doctor ordered. “There is a nostalgic feeling, even from an 18-year-old, when life was just simpler when we didn’t have to deal with this social media that’s flung at them every day of their lives,” he continues. “But I think that’s quite an engaging thing about the story, and then particularly if the analog wins, as it happens in our movie, then that’s quite a reassuring thing, to think that maybe we don’t have to be so reliant and so in thrall to digital advancement.”
Johnny English Strikes Again opens in theaters this Friday, October 26.