Watching an abominably clueless, self-absorbed narcissist on a big screen might not sound like escapism, but “Johnny English Strikes Again,” out Friday, serves as a medicinal distraction, delivering satisfying stupidity in a way only Rowan Atkinson can.
The actor, 63, returns as the slapstick MI7 spy, brought out of retirement when a cyber attack exposes all British field agents. Atkinson reunites with his sidekick Bough (Ben Miller); the movie also stars Emma Thompson as the British prime minister and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”).
As the third film in the “Johnny English” franchise, it might come as a surprise that the comedy icon, famous worldwide as Mr. Bean, actually hates making movies.
“I’m afraid I find the whole process of filmmaking so stressful and difficult that I don’t remember any of the filmmaking process being joyful or happy. It’s just a bit of a strain,” Atkinson told us when we pressed him on which gag was his favorite to shoot. Not the scene in which a virtual reality-immersed English unwittingly attacks a tour guide atop a double-decker bus? What about unleashing an Aston Martin-mounted missile at a group of traffic-blocking cyclists? “I suppose, probably the things in which I disliked the least, were the car bits,” the well-documented revhead admitted. “Cars are my thing, and I find car driving very relaxing, even if you’re on a film set.”
“I enjoy having done it,” he goes on to explain. “I enjoy the fruits of the process, but I don’t enjoy the process.”
The ultimate analog guy, Johnny English rejects any and every new-school device the intelligence service tries to arm him with. But unlike his Luddite alter ego, Atkinson says the piece of tech he’d like to use on this visit to New York probably hasn’t been invented yet. “I’d love a sort of a smartphone-disabler,” he reveals. “Stop people from using smartphones of any kind within a quarter of a mile of me.” Perhaps his viewpoint is not so far removed from English after all. “I think of something that someone else said, that technology is advancing faster than our ability to accommodate it, mentally or physically even, in our lives,” he continues. “And I feel particularly sorry for people who are more plugged in to social media than I am. I’ve no interest in it whatsoever.”
Speaking of alter egos, we can’t help but wonder how Johnny English and Mr. Bean would get along. “Oh, not well at all,” asserts Atkinson. “I mean, they’re both very self-centered individuals. … Johnny English is not a particularly nice person, and Mr. Bean is certainly is not a particularly nice person. He’s a child trapped in man’s body with all the anarchy and selfishness that that implies.”