‘Johnny English’ and the Not-So-Secret Formula of the Spy Film Spoof

Rowan Atkinson in 'Johnny English Reborn'

English funnyman Rowan Atkinson once again bumbles and mumbles his way across the screen as an incompetent British secret agent in a sequel to his 2003 spy spoof, Johnny English. The latest chapter, Johnny English Reborn, opens today (Friday, October 21).

The model here is, of course, James Bond, that most debonair of super spies, as Rowan Atkinson himself discussed in a recent BBC interviewIan Fleming‘s British agent, in the brawny, tuxedo-clad person of Sean Connery, first arrived on screen in Dr. No in 1962. In the nearly five decades since, there’s been another Bond picture (and successive stars portraying 007) nearly every two years.

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to figure out that that the Bond films were ripe for spoofing. TV got there first, with Mel Brooks serving as co-creator on the Get Smart sitcom series (1965-70), which featured as its hero Maxwell Smart, an agent who every week failed to live up to his last name. (Skip the half-baked movie version, starring Steve Carell, from 2008.)

Stars like James Coburn and Dean Martin soon followed, the former playing Derek Flint in two movies (Our Man Flint in 1966 and In Like Flint a year later) and the latter earning laughs as Matt Helm in four movies, beginning in 1966 with The Silencers.

Not to be outdone, the British film industry also got into the spy spoofing act in the 1960s, turning out such lightweight efforts as Carry On Spying in 1964 and The Spy with a Cold Nose, a 1966 comedy starring Laurence Harvey and Lionel Jeffries.

Over the years, satirical takes on the Bond series and espionage films have proved catnip for comic actors. Three members of the first wave of Saturday Night Live-spawned stars tried, with Chevy Chase and Dan Akroyd striving desperately to buoy the dopey Spies Like Us (1985) and Bill Murray doing his dry, ironic thing with greater success in the under-rated The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997).

More recently, another ex-Saturday Night Live star, Mike Myers, hit both creative and box office pay dirt when he dreamed up Austin Powers, his toothsome British secret agent from the groovy 1960s who finds himself suddenly cast into the modern world. Myers made three Powers films: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997); Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), which collectively grossed $675 million at the box office worldwide.

The films also let loose such popular catchphrases as “Yeah, baby!” and “Oh, behave!” and memorable characters such as Dr. Evil (also played by Myers) and Mini Me.

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What’s your favorite spy spoof film?

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