Johnny English Reborn


Rowan Atkinson gives himself a little touch-up.

Rowan Atkinson gives himself a little touch-up.

(2011) Spy Spoof (Universal) Rowan Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Kaluuya, Tim McInernny, Pik-Sen Lim, Richard Schiff, Burn Gorman, Isla Blair, Mark Ivanir, Stephen Campbell Moore, Roger Barclay, Eric Carte. Directed by Oliver Parker

The world needs its superspies. Suave men ridiculously well-dressed who can toss a grenade with one hand while holding a perfectly made cocktail in the other while spouting a witticism as dry as his martini. We need them. Really we do.

That is to say, we need Johnny English (Atkinson) but the urbane spy no longer needs the world. After a disaster in Mozambique which led to a world leader getting assassinated on Johnny’s watch, he has retired to a kung fu monastery where he is undergoing rigorous training to get a Zen-like calm back although what getting kicked in the nuts has to do with Zen I’m not quite sure.

Then he gets word that he is needed at MI-7 (now known as Toshiba British Intelligence in one of the film’s better jokes) and reports to Pegasus (Anderson), the agency’s chief. It appears that another assassination is in the offing and the contact who knows anything about it will speak only to English. Johnny is given a hero-worshipping Agent Tucker (Kaluuya) to assist and is watched like a hawk by psychiatrist, Kate Sumner (Pike) whom he develops a more intimate rapport with.

In the meantime he must contend with supercilious agent Simon Ambrose (West), an octogenarian hit woman with a deadly vacuum cleaner (Lim) and a clever and deadly opponent who always seems to be at least one step (if not more) ahead of English and his colleagues. Plus, it seems, there may be a mole within the agency. Someone evidently forgot to call the exterminator.

I have to admit first off that Rowan Atkinson is a taste I haven’t yet acquired. He has legions of fans for his efforts in “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean” and in dozens of film appearances over the years but I haven’t ever really found him to be my taste, so take anything negative I say about him with a grain of salt. He is a gifted physical comedian but for whatever reason I’ve always found him to be too lowbrow. He is the equivalent of a fart joke and there are plenty enough of those here.

There are a lot of Bond references here as there must be in any self-respecting spy spoof but at times you get the sense that there isn’t any sort of real imagination here particularly in regards to the story. It seems like something we’ve seen a million times before, not only in Bond but it traditional suspense movies and in other spoofs, like “Get Smart” for example.

This is definitely aimed at youngsters. The humor really is on that level. Parents will get the references; kids will love the toilet humor and pratfalls. It’s really quite inoffensive and has moments that you might chuckle nostalgically at but it got little more out of me. Those who love Atkinson will probably get a lot more out of it than I did. It’s not a bad movie – heaven knows there’s much worse out there – but by the same token it isn’t going to remain in your memory banks for very long.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nifty gadgets and Atkinson, though an acquired taste, never disappoints.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is terribly juvenile and the plot stale and predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of rude humor, some cartoonish violence, a few choice bad words and some sexiness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simon Ambrose is said to have attended Eton College. In reality Dominic West, the actor that portrays him, actually did attend Eton.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $160.1M on a $45M production budget; this was a big hit but nearly all of it overseas. Only $8M came from domestic box office which virtually guarantees we’ll see another Johnny English movie but possibly not over here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mystery, Alaska

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Valkyrie


Valkyrie

Tom Cruise wonders why he didn't get a part in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

(United Artists) Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard, Terrence Stamp, Christian Berkel, David Bamber. Directed by Bryan Singer

When the state becomes toxic to its people and amoral in its actions, it is the responsibility of good men to rise up and resist. Those actions may take the form of protest or, in extreme instances, of action – deadly action with deadly consequences.

Perhaps no society had ever become more amoral than that of Nazi Germany, and although sometimes we forget, there were plenty of Germans who resisted the Nazis and worked to bring down their diseased regime.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) was one aristocratic Prussian who was becoming more and more concerned over the direction that Hitler was taking. Certainly Hitler was proving himself to be no master tactician; he was needlessly sacrificing men and material that, von Stauffenberg thought, would be needed for the defense of Germany when the Allies invaded. Von Stauffenberg, a handsome aesthetic young man, would be cruelly injured in battle, losing an eye, a hand and two fingers off the other hand.

There were others who thought as von Stauffenberg did as well, including Major General Henning von Tresckow (Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Nighy) and Ludwig Beck (Stamp), a politician. In fact, these men were convinced that in order to save Germany, Hitler had to die. After an aborted attempt to kill Hitler goes wrong, the remaining conspirators decide to bring von Stauffenberg into the fold.

At first he’s reluctant to join the fold. The cabal doesn’t really have an exit plan, nor do they seem well-organized to the well-organized von Stauffenberg. However, von Stauffenberg has an idea. It involves Operation Valkyrie, a plan Hitler has in place to keep the government intact in the event that the Nazi leadership is killed or incapacitated. Von Stauffenberg can use that plan against the Nazis by assassinating Hitler with a bomb at the Wolf’s Den, his heavily armored stronghold where his military staff meets to plan the war, then claiming the SS was responsible for the deed.

It’s a bold move, but it will need a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is getting General Friedrich Fromm (Wilkinson), head of the reserves, on board and Fromm is a political opportunist who doesn’t care about ideology so much as he does about power – his own. If the plan succeeds, it will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the face of the war forever.

Of course, most people know that Hitler wasn’t assassinated by his own people – he took his own life. Students of history familiar with the plot know that it failed due to a relatively simple factor – the briefcase bomb was moved inadvertently by an adjutant so that he could stretch his legs, putting a thick block of wood between Hitler and the bomb.

However, unless you’ve got a rabid passion for World War II, chances are you aren’t going to know many details about the plot. Director Singer, best known for his X-Men movies, has meticulously recreated wartime Germany, and has at least tried to film at actual locations whenever possible, although his star’s Scientology beliefs made that task difficult as the German government was at first reluctant to grant the crew access to these locations because they consider Scientology a cult. While I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I do think that it was a bit ludicrous of them to kick up such a fuss over the beliefs of a single actor. That’s just me though.

I did like the historical detail to the piece; it’s one of the best aspects of the movie. However, there are some problems here, some of them not the fault of the filmmakers. For one, the real von Stauffenberg was a very cultured, somewhat reserved man who held himself with military bearing. By our standards he was somewhat aloof, and that aspect of his personality seems to be the one Cruise honed in on. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the audience and the character; it makes it difficult to really get into von Stauffenberg’s head. However, Cruise looks uncannily like von Stauffenberg as shown in the comparison photo below:

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (left), Tom Cruise (right)

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a long time associate of Singer, takes a more observational tactic to the script. He gives us the events and many of the facts, but little of the character behind the men who were involved. We have to take it for granted that they were more concerned with the potential destruction of Germany than they were about the Final Solution, which they may or may not have known about. We won’t get any insight that way from this movie.

The supporting cast, mainly of veteran British character actors, is sterling. Nighy as the somewhat indecisive Olbricht is particularly outstanding, although it is Wilkinson as the conniving Fromm who delivers the best performance. He is a conniving rat who follows whichever direction the wind is blowing, but even so when Wilkinson’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off of him.

This isn’t a bad film, it’s a pretty good film as a matter of fact but unfortunately it never got much attention during the glut of releases Christmas 2008 when it hit theaters. That’s a shame, because this is a decent suspense movie with the added attraction that it actually happened, pretty much as seen in the film.

WHY RENT THIS: The historical accuracy is a bit better than is usual for Hollywood films. Singer keeps the tension palpable even though most of us know how the events are going to conclude.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise is a little stiff as von Stauffenberg. The script seems more concerned with the events than those who took part in them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, including some scenes that are sudden and shocking, and a smattering of bad language. Certainly most teens can handle this, as well as mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Van Houten, who plays Nina von Stauffenberg, is the longtime companion of Sebastian Koch who played Claus von Stauffenberg in the TV production of “Operation Valkyrie.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature called “The Valkyrie Legacy” discusses the actual historical events, with interviews from descendents of the failed plotters as well as surviving co-conspirators. It also covers what happened after the events of the film. The Blu-Ray edition has the grandson of von Stauffenberg taking us on a tour of the actual Valkyrie locations.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: City of Ember