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English squanders its spy inspiration

James Bond has sparked swell spoofs, but this isn't one of them

Hey look, a James Bond parody. Now there's something that's never been done before!

Excuse the sarcasm. There's probably not a movie genre that's been the butt of more cinematic jokes than the 007 oeuvre, and some of them, like the 'Pink Panther' films and James Coburn's 'Flint' spoofs, are so hilarious as to be un-toppable.

'Johnny English' is not hilarious. It is, in fact, almost entirely devoid of cleverness Ñ quite a feat when you think about it. Riffing on Bond should be a cakewalk, what with all the high-tech gadgets and hammy villains and fabulous babes. Yet this uninspired piece of fluff misses the mark almost every step of the way.

Comedian Rowan Atkinson ('Bean') plays the eponymous spy, a character he created for a series of British television commercials.

In the ads, English and his more competent partner, Bough (pronounced 'boff' and played with admirable integrity by Ben Miller), attempt various spy missions, only to be thwarted by Atkinson's Mr. Bean-like idiocies as he trips, breaks things, sets himself on fire, etc. The film is little more than a 90-minute string of such gags, and they just aren't funny.

The problem is that the movie doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. Screenwriters Robert Wade and Neil Purvis wrote two of the most forgettable of Pierce Brosnan's 007 films ('Die Another Day' and 'The World Is Not Enough') and the music is a dead-on rip-off of the Bond theme. But 'English' doesn't really try to make direct fun of those movies, with the exception of the occasional wrist gizmo and the inclusion of a beautiful Interpol agent (singer Natalie Imbruglia).

Nor does the film stand on its own as a spy comedy, with a paper-thin plot that's just a springboard for slapstick nonsense involving English getting his clothes caught in doors and falling down.

The 'incompetent spy' conceit isn't a bad one, and had 'Johnny English' tried for more of an Inspector Clouseau flavor than that of Mr. Bean, it could have been worth watching. Instead it's a disappointing waste of time.

'English' even wastes a perfectly good over-the-top villain in Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich, doing a very broad French accent).

Even though Sauvage's blessed with an amusingly ludicrous plan for taking over the throne of England, he isn't given any funny lines to deliver. Not one. What's the point of having Malkovich play a French supervillain in a spy parody if you're not going to give him anything interesting to do?

Given the right material, Atkinson can be a sidesplitting comedian. His turn as the supercilious Edmund Blackadder in the BBC series of that name stands as one of the funniest characters in one of the funniest television shows ever to hit the airwaves. He's also shone in smaller film roles, like the nervous vicar in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (where he memorably intoned, 'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot').

And he obviously did something right with his 'Bean' franchise, given that character's phenomenal cross-cultural success. Trying to turn Mr. Bean into a spy just isn't a very good idea, however, and 'Johnny English' isn't a very good movie.

Here's hoping Atkinson comes up with something funnier next time Ñ he's certainly capable of better than this.