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Spy Parody Franchise on Life Support After Softball Third Installment 

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One wonders what possible reason anyone could have for going to see Johnny English Strikes Again, the third installment in a James Bond parody series starring Rowan Atkinson. Teens like me, who guffawed through the original in 2003, may be sorry to hear that there are only perhaps four moments of potential pity laughter throughout. Atkinson remains a sweet and limber goofball on screen, but the film is an unimaginative, unmemorable 80 minutes, a softball PG-13 comedy that relies primarily on the waning slapstick talents of its aging lead. It feels like children's programming.

Establishing its premise with all the graceless economy of an NCIS: Los Angeles episode, English's latest exploit begins with a cyberattack in which the identities of every last British spy are leaked online. To go after the hackers, British intelligence must bring someone out of retirement, someone the hackers won't expect. Guess who?

Johnny English has been teaching geography — in his view, recruiting spies — at a boarding school in the countryside, and he leaps at the prospect of a new mission. In short order, there's some uninspired digital vs. analog banter, an "energy pill" gag, and an extended VR sequence that makes such little sense and is so unfunny that it's honestly difficult to watch. One shudders to consider that it was likely the script's flagship comedic sequence. Even Emma Thompson, as a perennially distraught Prime Minister, isn't right. Is she playing it straight or for laughs? Same question for American actor Jake Lacy as tech mogul Jason Volta, whom you'll no doubt peg as the bad guy in less than the two seconds that it took me.

Every joke, every beat, every "twist," is groaningly discernible long before it arrives. And the humor, when it does occasionally land, is just so soft. In an early scene, Johnny English appears with other former spies who've been summoned out of retirement. It's a roundtable of estimable British gentlemen: Michael Gambon (Dumbledore!); Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister!) and Edward Fox (M, from Never Say Never Again!) There's some hat-measuring when Dance pulls out a pen with a cap that doubles as a hand grenade, ho ho! Johnny English predictably loses it in a cup of tea, with a plunk that, I confess, made me grin. And when he rescues the cap outside the tea room and tosses it back inside, I gasped. Did those guys just explode? Alas, when the door is opened — I was expecting carnage — all three men are intact, either asleep or peacefully gassed.

"I guess they nodded off," English says, a prelude of audience reactions to come.

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