On September 28, Rowan Atkinson will return to the screens as the incompetent-but-sought-after British secret agent in Johnny English Strikes Again, the third installment of the spy comedy series. In the latest movie, Johnny English is forced to come out of retirement to save the world from a cyber-attack.
Johnny English Strikes Again continues a sub-genre that has been around since the 1960s and has been kept alive through countless films, television series and books. Some of these films send up the over-achieving international spy, while others are direct spoofs of the Bond films that are based on Ian Fleming’s novels and feature Agent 007 as the ultimate male fantasy.
The character of Johnny English, an agent in the British military intelligence unit MI7, was inspired by Richard Latham, an inept spy played by Atkinson in a series of television advertisements for Barclaycard in the 1990s.
Among the precursors to Johnny English (2003) was the Austin Powers trilogy (1997-2002), a direct attack on the Bond films. Written by and starring Mike Myers and directed by Jay Roach, the movies were among the most commercially successful of the spy film parodies, and also a cult classic.
The first film in the series, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery (1997), introduces the world to Myers’s super-spy Austin Powers and the super-villain, Dr Evil, also played by Myers. Thanks to the wonders of time travel, the adversaries are transported from the ’60s to the ’90s for another face-off. Much of the film’s humour comes from the fact that Powers and Dr Evil are stuck in the ’60s while the rest of the world has moved on.
The film featured several tongue-in-cheek references to the Bond films. Dr Evil was based on the Bond villains Dr No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Evil’s henchman Random Task was a parody of Oddjob from Goldfinger (1964). M, Bond’s superior, who explains his mission to him in the films, gave way to the aptly titled Basil Exposition, who lays out his primary narrative purpose in one scene by beginning a conversation with, “Let me bring you up to speed.”
Two sequels followed, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), but they moved away from direct Bond references to incorporate generic slapstick gags.
One of the earliest spy spoof films was the British comedy Hot Enough for June (1964), which centred on a youngster who unwittingly starts working for British intelligence and is sent to Prague on a mission. Another release that year was Carry On Spying, part of the Carry On comedy series, which centred on Agent 000, Charles Bind.
Towering over the spoofs from this era is Casino Royale (1967), which, remarkably, was born from the rights to the actual book. The producer, Charles K Feldman, had bought adaptation rights to Fleming’s 1953 novel, which was the first to feature Bond. But Casino Royale was produced as a spoof after Feldman could not agree on the profit-sharing terms Albert R Broccoli’s Eon Productions, which had produced all the Bond films till then, starting with Dr No in 1963.
The resultant Casino Royale was a collage of jokes, featuring an ensemble cast that included Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Jean-Paul Belmondo and John Huston. The film revolves around a plan by James Bond (David Niven) plan to take down the Soviet counterintelligence group with the help of six decoy Bonds.
Other spy spoofs have derived their humour from portraying the protagonist as an incompetent or unlikely candidate who doesn’t look the part but has been saddled with the task because of contrived circumstances. Johnny English, originally a pen-pusher at MI7, is an example. Others include a vacuum cleaner salesman in Our Man in Havana (1958), a mousy coffee shop manager in The Intelligence Men (1965), and a desk agent who finds herself on the field in the 2015 film Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy.
Then there are the spoofs centred on hardened professionals who are as deadly and dashing as the best of the Bonds, but whose hubris and ignorance create comical situations.
An example is Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, better known by his code name OSS 117, after his role in the Office of Strategic Services. The character, played by Jean Dujardin in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), was a humorous reinvention of the original secret agent created by French novelist Jean Bruce in a series that predated Fleming’s Bond books. The first film made on the character, OSS 117 Is Not Dead (1957), also appeared five years before the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962).
While the original books and films were straightforward spy thrillers oblivious to their potential for parody, the two films starring Dujardin lampooned the genre’s tropes and also poked fun at OSS 117’s die-hard patriotism. In OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, La Bath is sent to the Egyptian capital where he has to step into the shoes of a poultry farm owner to resolve the Suez crisis. What follows are offensive remarks about Islam and the Arab world, examples of his arrogance (a character remarks that he is “so very, very French”, which OSS 117 takes as a compliment), and numerous slapstick gags such as a fight that involves throwing chickens.
This film and its sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009), not only poked fun at the spy films of the ’60s but also recreated the camera movements, colour palette and even the rear-projection driving scenes (where the background is pre-filmed) common in the genre.
Another Bond me-too in this vein is Sterling Archer from long-running animated sitcom Archer, which was renewed this year for a tenth season.