EVEN a spy as clueless as Austin Powers knows he has no shortage of rivals. In the past year alone, we’ve encountered juvenile spies (“Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams”), maverick spies (“The Recruit”), deluded spies (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”), African-American spies (“Undercover Brother”) and, of course, the ultimate spy (“Die Another Day”).
This Friday, we’ll meet a spy who began life in a credit card commercial.
The bumbling, over-confident British secret agent of “Johnny English” was originally a character named Richard Latham created by rubber-faced Brit comic Rowan Atkinson in the early 1990s for a hugely popular series of TV ads for England’s Barclays Bank.
“[The ads] were only one minute long but they had the feel and the scale and the tone of a proper spy movie,” says Atkinson.
“And we liked the comedy of the central character and we liked the dynamics between him and his sidekick, Bough. We always thought that we might like to make a movie based on those characters, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Atkinson’s English is a junior desk-bound agent who is elevated to Number One spy after his ineptitude results in the demise of every other agent in the British Secret Service.
With the assistance of his partner, Bough (Ben Miller), and undercover Interpol agent Lorna Campbell (Australian pop star Natalie Imbruglia, making her feature film debut), he must stop fiendish French businessman Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) from becoming king of England.
Atkinson, best known in the U.S. for 1997’s “Bean,” believes the nationality of the villain will help “Johnny English’s” fortunes in America, where there is still lingering resentment over France’s opposition to the Iraq war.
He’s also the first to admit “Johnny English” – which has already raked in $120 million at the international box office – owes a debt to the mythology of 007.
Neal Purvis, who penned the screenplays for the last two Bond films – “The World is Not Enough” and “Die Another Day” – is a co-writer on the film, whose trailers promise “Bean meets Bond.”
And – obscure trivia alert! – Atkinson himself once appeared in a Bond film, as a whining embassy official who gets thrown into a pool by Sean Connery in 1983’s “Never Say Never Again.”
While “Johnny English” is no James Bond film, not by a long stretch, Atkinson believes that, in terms of scale and tone and size, it’s more a James Bond film than “Austin Powers.”
While comparisons between “Johnny English” and “Austin Powers” are inevitable, the two spy comedies do occupy different ground.
Mike Myers’ Austin Powers is an American parody of the British super-spy, its hero existing in an oversexed, pop-psychedelic alternate universe; Johnny English is a minor British Secret Service Agent who takes his work very seriously, and the world of MI-7 is his milieu.
And where the three PG-13-rated “Austin Powers” movies rely heavily on sexual innuendo and toilet jokes for their humor, the squeaky-clean and chaste “Johnny English” is aimed firmly at the eight- to 12-year-old market.
But there is one thing they have in common: There’s already talk of a “Johnny English” franchise.