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 all of the identities of Britain’s undercover intelligence officers.
Speaking over the phone, Atkinson explains the irreverent humor that fuels his movies, which continue to be hits with audiences who can care less what film critics think. (The film currently has a 37 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet 90 percent of users of the site want to see the movie.) “We’ve never had good reviews for what we do,” he says. “I’m not aware of any Mr. Bean movie or Johnny English movie that’s ever really had good reviews. Maybe there are some,” he admits, divulging, “to be honest, I don’t really read the reviews. But from what I gather… from what people tell me,” he adds with a small laugh, “generally speaking, film critics seem to find them difficult to enjoy.”
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 hang-ups that some more adult viewers have.”
One of the criticisms that seem to dog these films is that the jokes don’t come fast enough. Film critics, particularly American reviewers, often praise comedies that roll with one joke into another at a quick clip. That’s a very different approach than 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 his 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 above the hybrid cars he’s offered by British Intelligence.
“It’s this sort of semi-nostalgic thing, I suppose,” Atkinson admits. “I just find it fun when anyone brings out a tape cassette and puts it into a machine like, I think, Ryan Gosling did at the beginning of La La Land … There’s this warm sort of vinyl record-like nostalgia to see people put coins into phone boxes on the side of the road.”
Atkinson recognizes that these instances will appeal to an older audience, but it’s also something today’s teenagers can get into as well. He describes it as more than nostalgia, instead 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 enthrall to digital advancement.”
Johnny English Strikes Again opens in theaters this Friday, October 26.