Johnny English Reborn
Rowan Atkinson returns as the inept secret agent, this time taking on international assassins
Son of Saddam Uday Hussein needs a double. Enter lookie-likey Latif, his latest unwilling employee, who must act as both human shield and carry out the duties Uday finds too boring to bother with
Reviewers love to complain about films being all plot and no character development, but here's a film that goes in completely the other direction. It's a one man, two man show, with Dominic Cooper playing both leads: the batshit insane Uday Hussein, eldest son of Saddam, and Latif Yahia, one of Uday's body guard doubles, chosen to take a bullet should he be attacked. And attacked he was, with Latif surviving at least 11 assassination attempts, not all of which are shown in the film, as there wouldn't be much time for anything else.
Uday would risk being an over-the-top one-note villain if he were fictional. But knowing he was real and that, if anything, the film shies away from portraying the worst of his excesses, lends an undoubted gut-level horror to what transpires. We're not shown him torturing Iraqi athletes who failed to perform to his expectations on the international sporting circuit. We are shown him intruding on a wedding party and seizing the bride in order to rape her. We're not shown the medieval torture device, the iron maiden, found in his compound after his death. We are shown him abducting underage schoolgirls from the streets of Baghdad who will later be raped, murdered and dumped outside the city.
He's almost too rich a subject as a villain. The script doesn't seem to know quite where to begin. And with a villain that strong, you need a compelling hero to balance things out, which unfortunately Latif isn't. The film is based on Latif's memoirs and perhaps it's this that means Latif is only ever shown as making the best of a horrifying situation; he never seems particularly tempted to take advantage of the luxurious temptations surrounding him, other than in a predictable and goes-nowhere affair with one of Uday's mistresses. He mostly looks on with a disapproving frown, which doesn't make for a very dramatically satisfying narrative, even if it's probably the safest course of action for him.
Nevertheless, it's a breakout double performance for Dominic Cooper who acts brilliantly opposite himself, no mean feat for an actor more often called upon to play sexually confident young Jack-the-lads (Starter For Ten, Tamara Drewe, The History Boys). This isn't the Scarface of Arabia it has been painted as, but has high-points of stylish tension and should see Cooper offered plenty more roles with real dramatic heft to them.
See it for Dominic Cooper's performance, avoid it for the messy structure and refusal to properly get under the skin of either its mad, bad and dangerous villain or straight-laced hero.
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On Film4: 03 October 2014