[Screen It]

(2003) (Frankie Munoz, Hilary Duff) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: A 15-year-old junior agent for the CIA must overcome his shyness around girls when he's assigned to infiltrate the life of a female classmate and find out what her inventor dad is doing with some international criminals.
Nanotechnology inventor Dr. Albert Connors (MARTIN DONOVAN) has created an oil spill confinement process where pre-programmed "nano-bots" automatically and systematically devour their intended target. An international uber-villain, Brinkman (IAN McSHANE), and his henchman Francois Molay (ARNOLD VOSLOO), however, have for more grandiose and sinister plans for the bots. By using them to attack various missile installations, they'll be able to render the U.S. military helpless.

Accordingly, the CIA director (KEITH DAVID) realizes they have to take action to prevent that from occurring. Yet, they need an undercover agent to get close to Connors' teenage daughter, Natalie (HILARY DUFF), to spy on the inventor. Enter 15-year-old Cody Banks (FRANKIE MUNIZ), a junior agent with the CIA Development Program, Seattle division.

Having been trained in covert summer camps, Cody's secret agent status is secret to his parents (CYNTHIA STEVENSON & DANIEL ROBUCK) and younger brother, Alex (CONNOR WIDDOWS). He has no idea, however, how he's going to accomplish his task - getting Natalie to fall for him - since he's incredibly awkward around girls. Even so, he sets out to do just that and with the aid of adult agent Ronica Miles (ANGIE HARMON), Cody tries to win the girl, catch the villain and save the world.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Considering that those who play secret agent James Bond keep aging and periodically have to be replaced to keep the character and series somewhat believable, it's not surprising that someone finally went all of the way back into childhood for the latest replacement.

I'm not talking about James Bond, Jr., but the idea of having a kid playing a secret agent isn't half bad since most kids dream of doing just that. For the makers of "Agent Cody Banks," however, it's already been done, both recently and in duplicate with the two "Spy Kids" movies.

It's hard to say whether this is a case of being beaten to the punch (since films are notorious for being in pre-production for years) or a copycat sort of effort (since Hollywood is often a hyena that enjoys feeding off the success of others' work). Then again, it could be a preemptive strike before Carmen and Juni Cortez deal with adolescent pangs in one of their next outings. Whatever the case, let's call this one "Spy Kids - The Attack of the Hormones."

That said, the film is not as imaginative - from a visual and storytelling perspective - as those Robert Rodriguez pictures and pretty much ignores the family angle that made the "Spy Kids" films connect with children and parents alike.

Perhaps that's purposefully done in keeping with the teen angle since many in that age bracket would rather be caught dead than be seen with their parents or siblings. As directed by Harald Zwart ("One Night at McCool's") who works from a screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz (making their feature film debut) and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski ("Man on the Moon," "The People vs. Larry Flynt"), however, the film doesn't really go down that route either.

It also isn't the teen version of "Austin Powers" in spoofing the Bond series from an adolescent viewpoint. All of which is too bad since either path would have had the potential to entertain kids and adults better than what's ultimately offered. That's particularly true considering that the teen spy's handler -- Angie Harmon ("Good Advice," TV's "Law & Order") - in full vamp mode and chronically revealing attire that I doubt is "company" issue standard - also occasionally mothers him.

Then there's the fact that this mini-Bond -- Frankie Muniz ("Big Fat Liar," "Deuces Wild") in an agreeable but otherwise mundane performance - isn't exactly what you'd call a lady killer. Although there's a brief and rapid-fire montage of various adults trying to advise him about the opposite sex (since part of his job is getting a teenage girl to fall for him), the filmmakers don't have enough imaginative fun with that.

While I didn't necessarily think they'd get a former Bond performer to appear in a cameo as that sort of mentor, they at least could have imitated the voice off-screen or done more with that material. That could have included more scenes of his training and/or use of Bond-like gadgets to help him get that job done.

Speaking of gadgets, there's the usual and to be expected array of them (although few are really cool or creative) as well as Bond-style action stunts. Those include the obligatory opening sequence of derring-do, the inevitable downhill snow chase and the climatic finale in the villain's ludicrously immense and high tech lair (although, alas, there are no sharks with laser beams on their heads).

Overall, all of that and the film in general will probably entertain less discerning younger viewers, but there's nothing particularly special on display here. The villains -- Ian McShane ("Sexy Beast," all sorts of TV shows and movies) and Arnold Vosloo ("Zeus and Roxanne," the "Mummy" movies) with an ear to ear throat scar - are flat and uninteresting, while Keith David ("Barbershop," "Novocaine") chews up the scenery like a stereotypical, perturbed boss in a cop flick, although he's playing a CIA director here.

Hilary Duff ("Human Nature," TV's "Lizzie McGuire") adequately plays the teen love interest, and there's all of the standard teen romance material, but nothing you haven't seen countless times before. Muniz adequately handles the various aspects of the dual spay and teen angle. While pleasant enough in appearance and demeanor, his performance is mediocre at best and otherwise unremarkable.

Harmon is present to display cleavage and displeasure at having to watch over her teen charge, but is more successful at the former than the latter. Martin Donovan ("Insomnia," "Living Out Loud") is pretty much wasted as the inventor cum father figure, while Cynthia Stevenson ("Air Bud: Golden Receiver," "Happiness") can't do much with her limited parental character.

Overall, the film will probably be enjoyable for younger viewers - especially fans of Muniz - but otherwise isn't as successful at putting the spy kid through the teen years. "Agent Cody Banks" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 2, 2003 / Posted March 14, 2003

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