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Isn't Jackass the Movie just an amplified admixture of the "Mondo" documentaries, and those weird sports shows that used to be on in the 70s? Do you recall Donny Most doing the greased-pole rally? I recall a black-and-white film reel from the fifties called "Thrill a Second" that showed various daredevils executing eccentric stunts like water-skiing on a platform-mounted jungle gym and lowering oneself to the pavement from the rear of a speeding car. In the twenty-first century, to make one's mark, one must go to further extremes. Now when one lowers oneself to the pavement from the rear of a speeding car, there must be cacti and broken glass scattered about and heavy metal music blaring in the foreground.
Peter Sellers as Inspector Cleuseau set the bar more than three decades ago for bungling constabulary who would embarrass themselves again and again, only to be redeemed at last by saving the day. (Seller's character in The Party, however, did the same thing in a much cleverer and more delightful way.) Leslie Neilsen in his Naked Gun films suffered humiliations in front of larger audiences for larger stakes than mere stolen jewels. And Rowan Atkinson as Johnny English follows the arc of cinematic history into greater amplification of that same, familiar joke. In sounding the note louder than ever before, Atkinson succeeds.
In Johnny English, Atkinson makes a fool of himself in a mass-televised way, displaying his ineptitude in front of a world audience. He doesn't just pratfall, he de-pantses the Archbishop of Canterbury. The stakes aren't merely a sum of money or a single hostage, but the entire United Kingdom. And to save the day, he doesn't merely produce a single damning piece of evidence. Instead... you'll have to watch it yourself.
And I don't think you'll regret it on some chilly night when you're in the mood for a slapstick comedy. The jokes are ones that you've seen a million times, but hey, they still elicit laughter. Atkinson's gifts include the ability to telegraph his blunders so unerringly. There is no mistaking where each screw-up will occur and how. His comic sense is like clockwork, operating with computer-like efficiency. He delivers a boast, an absolute conclusion, an overconfident swagger, and the results are as immediate and reliable as the way a ball returns to earth when you throw it at the sky. Atkinson is a force of nature!
But this film goes further than just the absolute simplicity of Atkinson's humor. There are some unpredictable events, too. One is that the film's hottie falls for Atkinson's inner nobility. This happens through a series of unlikely steps. First, she manages to see beyond his pomposity; second, she looks past his complete incompetence; third, she hangs around him long enough for him to reveal his highly attractive patriotism; and fourth, she has pent-up sexual longings that make the bat-eared imp look like Sean Connery. Who would have guessed?
Another unexpected turn is how unsatisfying John Malkovich is in this film. I often like him, but here his acting was sallow, his French accent faltering, and his evilness unconvincing. What a noble man, that Malkovich, toning down his abilities so as not to outshine Atkinson!
As the lead villain, Malkovich's French billionaire triggers all kinds of jokes on the British (and American) rivalry with the French. Freedom-loving Americans will love the hilarious burns on Frenchy: their renown snobbery, their oft-noted tendency to surrender during wartime, their widely joked-about-yet-mainly-inaccurate infrequency of bathing. And viewers of French descent will enjoy the burns on the English, even though the English guy, Johnny English, wins in the end.
Since history has a tendency to move in only one direction, visiting classics like The Pink Panther Strikes Again can only be done with the company of nostalgia. We may never see the likes of Peter Sellers' brilliance again, but I give Rowan Atkinson credit for knowing that, and figuring out how to compensate by overdoing it on the story line.
©2003 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.