With Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson established himself as a master of bitingly acerbic sarcasm, sitting loftily above the idiots around him, delivering pithily trenchant putdowns in only the way that Ben Elton can write them. With the Mr Bean shorts, Atkinson set aside the caustic bite of British humour and ventured into physical slapstick. Mr Bean is almost a modern day descendent of someone like Charlie Chaplin the character rarely has dialogue and the comedy is almost entirely visual slapstick. Mr Bean is more akin to Chaplin put through the peculiar mercilessness of British college humour, wherein a basically absurd situation keeps being compounded further and further to the point that one is rolling on the floor at the cruelty of it.
Johnny English certainly conducts a smart move over and above other Austin Powers imitators it hires two screenwriters that actually worked on the James Bond films Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who between them wrote The World is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002) and all of the Daniel Craig films. The World is Not Enough was a well-above-average intelligence Bond film, one of the best series entries in some two decades. (Even so, the plot that Wade and Purvis come up with here is fairly far-fetched, even as these spy spoof films go).
Alas, Johnny English befalls a director who shows astonishingly little adeptness for comedy in Peter Howitt. Howitt was previously known for the Gwyneth Paltrow alternate timelines romance Sliding Doors (1998) and the computer-tech thriller Antitrust (2001) and it is he that kills the film. Howitt has an almost complete lack of ability when it comes to directing this type of physical slapstick. He sets up various gags Rowan Atkinson invading a hospital mistakenly thinking it is the villains headquarters, interrupting a funeral at gunpoint thinking the mourners are villains, pretending to fight an assailant behind a door in front of a crowd of onlookers, tomfoolery mixing up paralysis and truth serum rings and so on. If this were one of the Bean shorts, you can imagine how each gag would be compounded and keep on going until one was lying in stitches. Here the gags just sit there and Peter Howitts camera does little more than observe the actors playing them out. Howitt has no idea how to find or milk the cruelty and mercilessness of the situation. The audience I was with rarely even laughed throughout the film.
The one thing that does strike you about Johnny English is the sheer cultural vulgarity of the film the French are insulted, the Queen is forced to abdicate with one of her corgis being held at gunpoint, while the Archbishop of Canterbury has his bottom exposed in front of assembled dignitaries in Westminster Abbey.
Rowan Atkinson returned with a sequel Johnny English Reborn (2011).