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JOHNNY ENGLISH Johnny English is a movie of anticipation. Much of the time, we know exactly what predicaments this bungling British Secret Service agent will find himself in, and yet we still want to see him placed in these situations, if only to count the numerous ways in which star Rowan Atkinson will contort his rubber band of a face. Deadpan one second, bug-eyed the next, then pseudo-suave, then fretful, then pained -- it's like watching an entire comedy film festival rolled into one mug. Like many comedians, Rowan Atkinson is an acquired taste, but one which goes down easy for me -- and so does his latest vehicle, which turns out to be one of the summer's brightest surprises. After the vulgarity of the Austin Powers franchise, the PG-rated Johnny English seems almost like a quaint throwback, and it probably doesn't hurt that two of the screenwriters were responsible for Die Another Day, the best James Bond outing in ages; clearly, these men know their way around this genre and how to best tweak it. A car chase scene proves to be about as wickedly clever as the much-ballyhooed ones in The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but even with inspired sequences like this one, director Peter Howitt can't keep the picture from losing momentum once it reaches a disappointingly undernourished climax. Still, in a season of heavily hyped titles, it's nice to find a small-scale picture that delivers what it promises without making a big deal about it.

LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE Action movies simply were not meant to be as boring as the first two pictures in the Tomb Raider franchise. Where's the quickening of the pulse, the pounding of the heart, the holding of the breath? With this pair, the most a viewer can expect is the numbing of the brain and the closing of the eyelids. In my review of the first film, I wrote that it "ambles along at the speed of a slug through spilt salt"; here, the pace can best be described as the equivalent of crawling through quicksand with two broken legs and a refrigerator strapped to one's back. Clearly, this series is meant to evoke the spirit of the Indiana Jones films, but when the exposition is so arid, the stunts so standard, and the effects so ordinary, it's hard to even work up to the excitement level of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The series' main attribute is Angelina Jolie, but this time, director Jan De Bont and the movie's three scripters have inexplicably tempered her character's more saucy qualities -- having her spend mucho screen time romantically entangled with a rakish sidekick (bland Gerard Butler) was simply a bad call. Then again, it's not as if the action sequences use her well, either. The first movie at least contained a couple of fairly inspired set pieces, but there's nothing in this one that seems remotely fresh. Even the monsters that appear late in the game look familiar -- perhaps disgruntled extras from the set of Fraggle Rock. 1/2

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN A fascinating fiasco, this adaptation of the graphic novel created by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill is clearly a failure on just about every level that comes to mind, yet like the best "bad" movies, it holds our interest if only because we're dying to see what it will do wrong next. The concept is certainly fiendishly clever (and oh-so-calculated): At the turn of the previous century, a ragtag band comprised of famous literary characters must unite in an effort to stop a masked megalomaniac known as The Fantom from instigating a world war. Thus, we get adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), late of King Solomon's Mines, leading a motley crew that also includes Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous alter ego Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng), Dracula vampire Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), Oscar Wilde's immortal Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), and Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who has grown up to become a secret agent for the US government (I kid you not). It's a promising premise that's immediately undermined by the casting of several of the most boring actors imaginable (even Connery's asleep at the wheel) in roles that never break past the "gimmick" stage. Add to this dilemma a script that lurches from one schizophrenic set piece to the next, unappealing art direction that screams "Clutter Chic," and plotholes big enough to steer Nemo's sub Nautilus through them, and what's left is a blockbuster bust. 1/2


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