Absent-minded inspector

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First there was James Bond, then there was Austin Powers, and now there's "Johnny English," embodied in Rowan Atkinson in a new secret-agent spoof.

Johnny is less suave than 007, and his movie is less crude than the recent Powers sequel. But suavity and crudity are what sell tickets nowadays, and I'm afraid the latest not-so-super hero will have a shorter life at the multiplex than his predecessors.

The action starts when someone steals the crown jewels of England from under Johnny's nose. The villain is a French megalomaniac (John Malkovich) with a scheme to replace Queen Elizabeth and turn all of England into real estate for his prison-building business.

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That's a paltry ambition compared with Dr. Evil's plans for world domination, but it lets the screenwriters cook up a suitably silly climax wherein Johnny invades a coronation ceremony, pulls down the Archbishop of Canterbury's pants, and winds up becoming the monarch of Britain himself.

At times Mr. Atkinson conjures up memories of Inspector Clouseau in the "Pink Panther" movies, mixing hopeless ineptitude with a self-confidence that never quits. The most endearing thing about Clouseau is that he follows what director Blake Edwards called the Eleventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not give up." Johnny is equally sure he'll get the job done even though he's always snooping in the wrong place, has the social graces of a well-dressed baboon, and never quite figures out the secret-agent gadgets he's given to play with.

Atkinson can't match the late Peter Sellers's comic genius, though - his 1997 comedy "Bean" was funnier than "Johnny English" but nowhere near a classic - and director Peter Howitt doesn't generate the cinematic sparkle that energized the "Pink Panther" pictures.

The film's irreverence toward venerable British institutions may seem uproarious in Johnny's home country, but Americans will find this just another summertime farce, falling back on stale scatological jokes when it runs out of better ideas.

Where's the real 007 when we really need him? Or better yet - Calling Inspector Clouseau!

Rated PG; contains bathroom humor.

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