Over the course of the last decade, spy movies have become increasingly violent. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne has a lot to answer for, influencing many of the other big screen espionage icons from James Bond to Ethan Hunt. The genre has come a long way since the silliness of Roger Moore firing laser guns in Moonraker. It’s now a case of blood sloshing around on bathroom floors and bruising, testicle-based torture scenes.
With that in mind, the spy spoof has also darkened considerably. Gone are the days of Austin Powers’s bawdy bravado and kaleidoscopic colours. The spy spoof now means hard-edged fare like Matthew Vaughn’s ultra-violent Kingsman movies and the recent The Spy Who Dumped Me, which completely lost sight of its comedy in amongst the scenes of torture, bloodshed and general destruction.
It’s into this strange landscape that Johnny English Strikes Again will arrive at the beginning of October when it finally turns up in cinemas. With Rowan Atkinson playing the titular not-so-super spy seven years after Johnny English Reborn and 15 years after the character first hit the big screen, it’s difficult to see how this very British, very goofy character fits into the established canon of blood-soaked, curse-filled spy spoofs.
The simple answer, it would seem, is lightness and optimism. Spy movies, and their spoofs as well, currently operate under a cloud of dark cynicism. The world of today is one of divide, terror and danger, so movies have been driven to reflect that. As much as the Kingsman movies are marketed as comedies, they’re dark and angry films more focused on throwing out as much gore as possible than they are on bringing the laughs.
Johnny English, when it was released back in 2003, channelled the campy spirit of the way the Bond franchise was in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Sean Connery and Roger Moore eras. It was an utterly ridiculous spy caper that did remarkable business in the UK, topping the box office chart for three consecutive weekends. It got to where it did by virtue of its silliness, provided largely by Atkinson’s trademark brand of mostly non-verbal slapstick. He was a man desperately trying to be James Bond, but hopelessly unprepared for the level of responsibility handed to him.
The sequel, Johnny English Reborn, felt like a cheap attempt to emulate what made the previous movie work and served as a cheap shot of nostalgia for some fans. However, the time is now right for the character to return for one last hurrah. After almost a decade of rather joyless spy spoofs, audiences need a little dose of slapstick stupidity again and Atkinson’s gentleman idiot might be just the guy to provide it.
A film like Johnny English Strikes Again provides that most basic form of cinematic entertainment – escapism. The spy spoof might have grown up and embraced darkness, but that doesn’t mean this franchise has to do the same. It takes place in a world of pratfalls that couldn’t be further from the slick cynicism of Kingsman. Johnny is a buffoon in the most classic sense of that word, existing in a world far away from the grotesque realities of Brexit, Donald Trump and unsettling GIFs of Theresa May attempting to dance. That’s something that should be embraced.
Johnny English Strikes Again next Friday, October 5th
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.