Reviewed by: Ruth Eshuis
Spies in the Bible
Adjusting to modern technology
Rowan Atkinson … Johnny English
Olga Kurylenko … Ophelia
Emma Thompson … Prime Minister
Charles Dance … Agent Seven
Jake Lacy … Jason
Michael Gambon … Agent Five
Ben Miller … Bough
Miranda Hennessy … Tara
Edward Fox … Agent Nine
Adam James … Pegasus
Irena Tyshyna … Viola Lynch
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|Producer:||Perfect World Pictures
Studio Canal [France]
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“When only the best will do and no one else is available”
A hero who plays by his own rules?
This is what the trailers promise us from “Johnny English Strikes Again.” Indeed this is what we get—though I would challenge the suggestion that he can be called “a hero,” because in the name of humor the title character sets a terrible example for young viewers.
The story begins with a sudden perplexing problem—all England’s spies have had to go into hiding due to a major security breach that has exposed their true identities. Instead, the nation’s leaders are forced to re-engage the services of Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) who has become a quietly popular school teacher. Johnny sets out to do his duty for the crown and to make himself proud again by taking down a modern criminal using old-fashioned methods and vehicles to ‘fly under the radar’—not something he’s known for.
Throughout the mission, Johnny struggles to familiarize himself with new technologies without disgracing himself—though he seems completely unbothered by causing disgrace, harm or even death to others—and with reckless enjoyment of his job’s privileges.
I’m glad to say that Rowan Atkinson’s wordless acting is at its best in this film, without trying too hard, like his previous films have done. His face is marvelously expressive, he has a charm and ease, and he pulls off some truly amazing feats. There’s good connection with his co-stars and even children. I felt a fond sense of nostalgia for the old days of Mr. Bean and his little teddy bear, with a similar steady pace and cleverly built suspense toward what he may mess up next. Like a warm cup of cocoa, it does my core good to see a talented man’s best again, and to laugh vigorously at times.
I wish I could tell you there is more to admire and compliment… but there’s not. The extent of violence and immorality turned my warm-cup-of-cocoa feeling into a warm-cup-of-filth feeling. Allow me to explain.
Every part of the story, and almost every comedic incident, is marred by unwholesome content in some way. Usually it is gratuitous violence and ‘humiliation comedy.’ Often it is unnecessary emphasis on alcohol or the ‘fun’ (e.g., drug high, fast driving, fighting) aspects of various mistakes or wrongs. And few of the many issues involve the film’s villain! Instead it is the ‘hero’ who potentially causes harm to the viewer. The producers have consistently chosen to use poor taste to achieve laughs, rather than simply using the pure and universal physical comedy in which Rowan Atkinson is able to excel.
If you’ve seen the prequels and trailer, you know that Johnny English can be charming and catch the bad guys, but he cares very little about humanity (is it okay to be amused by that?). In fact, he endangers—or ends—the lives of dozens of innocent bystanders in each mission without apology or humbly facing up to consequences.
If we pause for a moment to look at it as though Johnny is a real person, he is vain, power-hungry, disrespectful and reckless. He also shows direct irreverence to God and government. At the same time, his smile and wit are likable, so youngsters may become confused about whether he’s good and about the safety of his behaviors. That is why I would not take children or even teens to look up to this character, even on a cinema screen.
The title character, Johnny English, fits the Bible’s definitions of the sort of person to stay away from:
“There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” —2 Timothy 3:1-5
Yet it gets worse. The villain is, of course, unpleasant and obnoxious, but this is not who left me gasping…
The English Prime Minister is played by the wonderfully gifted Emma Thompson, however her depiction is highly offensive in many respects. The script is loaded with suggestions that this PM is a shallow, grumpy alcoholic, foolishly flippant about national security, insulting to everyone, and who doesn’t need to respect God. This concerns me because, historically, Prime Ministers have been chosen for their integrity and are generally far better behaved than this—they are, of course, meant to set high standards, as they represent their country.
Furthermore, the specific phrases that come out of the Prime Minister’s mouth are awful. She spits out the special name of our Lord as though it is a nasty swear word. As you’ll see in the statistics below, there are 10 profane outbursts, a very high amount for a film supposedly aimed at families and young people.
Other crime-fighting bosses and international leaders are similarly shown as though they would make extremely unwise decisions that quickly jeopardize the whole world’s well-being. It’s unknown what political statements the creators may have been attempting, but, regardless, I found this very dishonoring towards the work of nation leaders, and at odds with the Bible’s call to prayerfully respect our authorities.
Overall, the spiritual tone of “Johnny English Strikes Again” is troubling. I know that some people would say it’s all tongue-in-cheek and that viewers aren’t likely to emulate the behaviors of Johnny English, the PM or the villain. Nevertheless, it’s worrying that audiences are getting thrills and chuckles from such horrid material. Just look at the size of the list of violent parts! My own mouth often changed from smile to frown to groan, so it was not at all a relaxing movie experience. I’m saddened by the lack of decency and positive messages. There is an underlying mockery of both the ultra-modern and the old-fashioned, and frequent bypassing of necessary rules and guidelines. There are also a half dozen instances of an adult causing children to do deadly things and writers have not ensured that young viewers won’t get the wrong ideas.
Although clearly aimed at children, teens and adults, too, I shudder at the thought of the impacts all this may have on many viewers with healthy sensitivities. Any child would be distressed by at least some of the violence. The discerning Christian viewer will cringe as he is met by hit after hit of crudity, atrocious role modeling, severe disrespect and shocking comic violence. The moments may be far apart at times, but are unavoidable and dangerously offensive to God, authorities and general human concern.
Johnny English strikes me again with amazement that I may once have shrugged off this content and perhaps even enjoyed it, yet now it repulses me. Such is the difference that Jesus makes in our lives, restoring us to no longer ‘call evil as though it is good.’
My view of this third Johnny English installment disagrees with some other Christian and secular critics about what is good and what is worst about this film. But on this we all agree: no one needs to see it.
How then shall we respond? Although it’s too full of trash to bring friends or family to view it together, if a loved one has already seen “Johnny English Strikes Again,” we may take the opportunity to discuss it with the following on our tongues:
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.” —Titus 3:1-5a
My prayer is that you too will long for a far greater hero than Johnny English—one who has true compassion, dignity, celebrates all that is wholesome and is able to overcome all evil once and for all—as Jesus has.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.