The transformation of bumbling secret agent Johnny English from Brit TV credit-card pitchman to big-screen character was not, to paraphrase another spy spoof, all ''s---s and giggles.'' Some of the development was rather serious. ''We had a script around the time of Sept. 11,'' says Rowan Atkinson. ''Which wasn't a very good script. So we used Sept. 11 as an excuse not to do it.... It was more about international terrorism.'' The resulting rewrite kept things local: English is called in to stop a French businessman (John Malkovich) from dethroning the Queen and taking over her rule. ''Otherwise, we'll have the thing that the British fear most,'' says Atkinson, ''a French king.'' Coming to his aid are a resourceful sidekick (Ben Miller) and a double agent/love interest (pop star Natalie Imbruglia, in her feature debut).
For Atkinson, best known Stateside for the waggish BBC series ''Mr. Bean'' and ''The Black Adder,'' making this movie was no joke. ''I wouldn't say life with me on the set is a laugh a minute,'' he admits. ''In order to be funny, I have to become somebody else...and then I can relax and then I can be funny. Otherwise, I tend to be a bit serious.'' Producers are no doubt hoping all the gravity will translate to on-screen chuckles, especially since the $30 million movie, which was pushed back from the spring to distance itself from fellow spook spoof ''Agent Cody Banks,'' has already garnered sequel talk. Director Peter Howitt (''Sliding Doors'') says he wouldn't mind helming that one as well. ''We were stuck here [in London] for this one,'' he says. ''I'll make sure to tell the writer to do scenes that begin 'Exterior: Beach. Caribbean.'''