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Movie review: Third time isn't the charm for spy parody 'Johnny English Strikes Again'

“JOHNNY ENGLISH STRIKES AGAIN” — 2½ stars — Rowan Atkinson, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Gambon, Ben Miller, Emma Thompson; PG (some action violence, rude humor, language and brief nudity); in general release

“Johnny English Strikes Again” has just enough potential to make you wish it were better, but in the end, David Kerr’s film settles into “forgettable sequel” territory.

This is the third movie in the “Johnny English” franchise, which stars veteran British comedian Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling, wide-eyed James Bond parody. This time around, English gets called out of retirement to track down a cyberterrorist who has been hacking his way through Britain’s infrastructure.

The film opens as the hacker penetrates the MI7 mainframe and exposes Britain’s entire spy community, leaving the prime minister (Emma Thompson) with no choice but to call retired agents into action. This brings her to English, who has been secretly teaching grade-school children the tricks of the spy trade while posing as a geography teacher.

Rowan Atkinson in a scene from "Johnny English Strikes Again."
Rowan Atkinson in a scene from "Johnny English Strikes Again."
Giles Keyte, Focus Features

Because of the hacker’s technological prowess, the prime minister opts for a more “analog” approach to her counter-operation, which suits the old-fashioned English just fine. English recruits his sidekick Bough (Ben Miller), tosses his MI7-issued smartphone for a suitcase full of old-school spy gadgets and sneers his way past a fleet of government hybrids to get behind the wheel of a classic red Aston Martin Vantage.

During this same scene, English also has to convince MI7 to issue him a gun — which seems odd for a spy agency. The whole sequence feels designed to draw a contrast between English’s old-school style and our modern world, but like much of the film, it just feels too underdeveloped to really make sense.

The bulk of the plot sends English and Bough careening from one set piece to another, designed to let Atkinson do his comic thing. Along the way they run into the genre’s requisite femme fatale, a Russian agent named Ophelia (Olga Kurylenko), while in the meantime, the prime minister courts the services of a transparently suspicious Silicon Valley guru named Jason (Jake Lacy).

It isn’t difficult to see where things are going, and the old-school vs. tech-future themes are never quite explored to satisfaction, but none of that is the point. “Johnny English” is about Atkinson getting laughs, and that’s where Kerr’s effort sadly falls short.

Rowan Atkinson in a scene from "Johnny English Strikes Again."
Rowan Atkinson in a scene from "Johnny English Strikes Again."
Giles Keyte, Focus Features

Anyone familiar with Atkinson’s work as Mr. Bean or in “The Black Adder” TV series knows the man has singular comic talent. Unfortunately, “Strikes Again's” script and execution has a way of undermining the comedic potential of Atkinson’s set pieces, unlike the way, say, the “Naked Gun” movies served Leslie Nielsen.

For example, when English and Bough jump into the Aston Martin to chase down Ophelia — who is driving an electric BMW — Bough asks if they shouldn’t find a more fuel-efficient vehicle for the chase. English replies that the Vantage is surprisingly thrifty with fuel, so it’s readily obvious that at some point in the chase, the car is going to run out of gas. Too often the gag setups are so transparent and the execution is so clunky that the payoff just feels overplayed and falls flat.

But there are a few bits that work, like a sequence where English has to give chase from the instructor seat of a driver’s ed car (all the classic auto stuff is especially fun when you understand that Atkinson is a known car guy), but the little successes just leave you wishing more time had been spent on the rest of the film.

As a forgettable pass-the-time kind of comedy, “Johnny English Strikes Again” fills its 88-minute run time, but for fans in the know, you’ll wish Atkinson had been given more to work with.

“Johnny English Strikes Again” is rated PG for some action violence, rude humor, language and brief nudity; running time: 88 minutes.