[Screen It]

(2001) (Antonio Banderas, Alexa Vega) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: When some kids discover that their parents have been kidnapped because they're former super spies, they set out to rescue them and stop the villains and their diabolical plans.
Carmen (ALEXA VEGA) and Juni Cortez (DARYL SABARA) are some normal kids who think they have normal, everyday parents. Unbeknownst to them, however, their father, Gregorio (ANTONIO BANDERAS), and mother, Ingrid (CARLA GUGINO), were formerly super spies who once hunted down each other, before falling in love, settling down and starting a family.

Now nine years after they gave up the spook business, they've received news that various OSS agents have been disappearing, with Gregorio suspicious that they've been converted into cartoon like characters on a popular TV kids show hosted by Fegan Floop (ALAN CUMMING). Accordingly, they set out to uncover the truth and so call in "Uncle" Felix (CHEECH MARIN) to watch over the kids.

It's not long after that, however, that Felix receives a distress call and informs the kids of the truth, all while battling some villains and sending the kids off in an escape pod headed for a "safe house." Armed with the message that "the third brain lives," and suddenly thrust into the roles of being their parents' rescuers, Carmen and Juni try to figure out what's going on, and begin piecing together the story when Ms. Gradenko (TERRY HATCHER) shows up with a collection of henchmen, claiming to be an OSS agent and longtime friend of their parents.

They soon realize that Gradenko is a villain who's after the miniaturized brain for Floop and his right-hand man, Minion (TONY SHALHOUB), who need the brain to complete the army of child robots they're building for head villain, Mr. Lisp (ROBERT PATRICK). After a chase and several close calls, the kids learn more information from their estranged Uncle Machete (DANNY TREJO) and then set out to battle the robot kids - two of which are exact copies of them - stop the villains, and rescue their parents.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
While most directors - like other filmmaking talent - usually seek to work in different genres so that they and their audiences don't become tired of them doing the same thing repeatedly ad nauseam, some end up working in the same genre for much of their careers. Of course, if one doesn't mind the repetition, is good at making such films, and/or can make a decent living doing so, more power to them.

Nevertheless, even such directors eventually want to break out from being pigeonholed, and thus the explanation for David "Blue Velvet" Lynch and Wes "Scream" Craven jumping genres with "The Straight Story" and "Music of the Heart" respectively. Had most anyone not known who had directed those films and were then asked to guess the filmmaker's identity, Lynch and Craven's names probably would not have been in the top fifty - or more - guesses.

Although he's obviously still too "new" to be categorized in one particular field, director Robert Rodriguez is clearly trying to make sure that doesn't happen with him. After breaking onto the scene with "El Mariachi" and then its big-budget remake, "Desperado," and then following them up with "From Dusk Till Dawn," the director quickly gained a reputation for his highly stylized, ultra-violent flicks.

In 1998, he decided to jump genres a bit with the less than successful horror film, "The Faculty," and has now taken an even greater leap with his latest effort. Yes, you guessed it, he's made a film aimed at kids. Now before you think that's an oxymoron to end all such contradictory and conflicting notions, it should be noted that Rodriguez has kept all of the style and visual panache, but jettisoned the guns and guts in this rollicking picture that kids will probably greatly enjoy.

Feeling like a high-octane, contemporary update of TV shows such as "Mission Impossible," "Get Smart" and even "Lancelot Link" that many of us grew up watching, the film plays with the spy genre and related material that kids innately seem to love. Filled with all sorts of cool, high-tech spy gadgets, nearly nonstop action and adventure, and featuring, of course, kids as the spy heroes, the film should be a hit with the younger set.

Of course, this isn't the first such picture to play to that target audience, as "Harriet the Spy" and "Inspector Gadget" preceded this one and toyed around with some of the same sort of material. Yet, there hasn't been one like this before that's so action-filled and doesn't play down to kids or be so inane and/or idiotic as to be near unbearable for adults.

That's not to say that this film doesn't have some juvenile material or that it ranks up there with the "Toy Story" films, "The Iron Giant" or many of Disney's animated efforts in terms of defining exemplary and outstanding family entertainment. Nevertheless, it's certainly far better than most of the pablum that's geared for and passed off as kid-friendly nowadays.

The story is rather straightforward, and while that limits what it can ultimately achieve from an artistic standpoint, it works well for the target audience. Two kids, with their own set of problems that some viewers will be able to identify with, discover that their parents are really former spies who've come out of retirement. Learning of them being kidnapped, the kids must then find and rescue them.

As such, the film is then set up like an old, funhouse ride in that those kids, and thus the audience, are taken on a wild and imaginative journey complete with cartoonish, two-dimensional villains and the thrill of not knowing what new discovery will be around the next corner.

Some of that's quite fun from a visual sense in that it seems that Rodriguez - who also wrote and edited the film - must have had "Dick Tracy" and the films of Tim Burton playing on the TV while he slept, thus allowing them to infiltrate his subconscious and influence his work. Various characters sport that wild, Tracy makeup look, while much of the film exudes the fantastical visual aura that many of Burton's films have done in the past. That said, some of the special effects occasionally look somewhat second rate and/or cheesy, not that the film's target audience, however, will know or care.

The inherent problem with the funhouse ride approach, though, and when viewed from an artistic standpoint, is that there's not much depth to the story and that the kids are only partially proactive in their behavior and overriding goal. While that somewhat emulates how most real kids would probably react if faced with the same amount of overwhelming information about their parents and all of the spy material, it does diminish some of the film's fun, at least for adult viewers who usually prefer to see characters who act rather than react.

As the kid-based heroes, Alexa Vega ("The Deep End of the Ocean," "Ghost of Mississippi") and Daryl Sabara (making his feature debut) are reasonably good, with the latter's rough acting skills actually making him seem more like the young viewers who will be rooting for his success and similarly can't act that well. Haley Joel Osment need not look over his shoulder with any sense of worry about being knocked off the best kid actor throne, despite Vega and Sabara pulling double duty by also playing their character's villainous robotic doubles.

Antonio Banderas ("Play It To The Bone," "The Mask of Zorro") and Carla Gugino ("Snake Eyes," "Judas Kiss") are fun as the parents/spies, lending just the right kid-friendly angle to their performances. The villains, while correctly cartoonish, don't fare quite as well with Alan Cumming ("Company Man," "Get Carter") playing an odd sort of Captain Kangaroo mixed with Pee Wee Herman role, Tony Shalhoub ("Galaxy Quest," "A Civil Action") embodying his appropriately titled minion, and Robert Patrick ("All the Pretty Horses," "Terminator 2: Judgement Day") as the head villain.

Other fun extended cameo parts go to Cheech Marin ("Tin Cup," "From Dusk Till Dawn"), Danny Trejo ("Reindeer Games," "From Dusk Till Dawn"), Terry Hatcher ("Tomorrow Never Dies," "Heaven's Prisoners") and one of the hottest actors working today in a concluding, surprise bit (although it's probably not who you think it would most likely be considering the subject matter).

Rodriguez has obviously placed more attention on the film's look and action-filled pace rather than story and characters (with duplicates of the kids running around I kept expecting more related confusion and hijinks, etc.). While that prevents the picture from being a classic kids film, it doesn't diminish the film's overall entertainment value too terribly, particularly for kids. Good, but not great from a critical and overall filmmaking standpoint, the film will nevertheless probably prove to be quite enjoyable to its target audience, thus ensuing the inevitable sequel and perhaps a franchise for Dimension Films. "Spy Kids" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 21, 2001 / Posted March 30, 2001

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