[Screen It]

(2004) (Frankie Muniz, Anthony Anderson) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: A 16-year-old C.I.A. spy travels to London to stop villains from taking control of the world's leaders via a mind control device.
Unbeknownst to his parents (CYNTHIA STEVENSON & DANIEL ROEBUCK) or younger brother, Alex (CONNOR WIDDOWS), 16-year-old Cody Banks (FRANKIE MUNIZ) is an undercover agent working for the C.I.A. While they believe he's away at a normal summer camp, Kamp Woody is really a covert training facility for young agents run by veteran spook Victor Diaz (KEITH ALLEN).

While he disappears during what appears to be a simulation, the C.I.A. director (KEITH DAVID) informs Cody that he's actually flown the coop with top-secret, mind-control software. With the aid of arts benefactor Lord Duncan Kenworth (JAMES FAULKNER), Diaz plans on gaining control over various world leaders.

Accordingly, the director assigns Cody to go undercover and stop the two before they take over the world. Arriving at Kenworth's London estate, Cody poses as a musical prodigy, along with other students such as Emily (HANNAH SPEARRITT), under the tutelage of conductor Isambard Jerkalot (JULIAN FIRTH). The only problem is that the junior agent has no idea how to play his clarinet.

For better or worse, he's aided by C.I.A. flunky Derek Bowman (ANTHONY ANDERSON) and his driver, Kumar (ROD SILVERS), and the small group of spies tries to uncover the villains' plans. As the latter go about their megalomaniacal efforts via dental assistant Santiago (SANTIAGO SEGURA), and Kenworth's wife, Josephine (ANNA CHANCELLOR), remains oblivious to what's occurring under her nose, Cody and his team set out to link Diaz and Kenworth together and stop them.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Everyone's familiar with the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Considering its love of sequels and formulaic pictures, I'm surprised that mantra isn't positioned just slightly below the famous Hollywood sign that looks over the world filmmaking capitol.

If there's one studio that needs to follow the flip-side -- "If it is broke, fix, sell or junk it -- it's MGM and their budding "Agent Cody Banks" franchise. The first film, released way back in March of 2003, was a moderate moneymaker and junior wannabe to the studio's more venerable James Bond series.

Hoping to strike while the iron is still hot (or in this case, lukewarm), the studio has cranked out the inevitable sequel that makes its debut just 12 scant months after its predecessor. I was no great fan of the original film as it lacked the charm or family aspect of the first "Spy Kids" films and wasn't enough fun as a mini-me version of those Bond or even Austin Powers pictures.

Compared to its sequel, however, the first film now looks like high art. Bad in just about every way imaginable, "Agent Cody Banks: Destination London" jettisons what little originality, spunk and/or charm the original possessed in favor of poor and forced storytelling, stiff acting and stunts, and what's arguably the worst direction of the year in a mainstream, Hollywood flick.

Rarely do I immediately dislike or find myself bored with any film during the first few minutes, but that was the case with this cinematic mess. It's hard to tell if that problem lies with the original script -- penned by Don Rhymer ("The Santa Clause 2," "Big Momma's House") -- the way in which director Kevin Allen ("The Big Tease," "Twin Town") decided to shoot it or varying amounts of presumed tinkering by outside forces. Whatever the case, the finished product not only doesn't work, but it's also a tortuous embarrassment to watch.

Like its bigger, big-screen brother, this effort has kept the main character and a few superfluous ones, but done a wholesale change in terms of the "Banks babes" and villains. Gone are Hilary Duff and Angie Harmon in favor of the less interesting Hannah Spearritt ("S Club Seeing Double") as a teen who, alert the press, really turns out to be covert operative.

The villains -- played by Keith Allen ("24 Hour Party People," "The Others") and James Faulkner ("I Capture the Castle," "Bridget Jones's Diary") -- aren't any better and their characters' nefarious, mild-control scheme isn't as imaginative or fun as one would expect. The switching of locales from the home base of Seattle to the "exotic" spy setting of London similarly doesn't add anything to the mix.

For reasons unknown, the filmmakers also decided to route their picture along the banks of the River Comedy. Unfortunately, it seems it was running dry when they swung by, as none of the material is remotely funny. That is, unless you're a big fan of Anthony Anderson ("My Baby's Daddy," "Malibu's Most Wanted") and his specific brand of loud and brash comedy. I'm not and his script-generated or improvised antics only further grated on me.

The film's biggest problem, just like the first time around, is with Frankie Muniz ("Big Fat Liar," TV's "Malcolm in the Middle) in the lead role. Although he's fairly inoffensive, he's simply all wrong for the role. Remember how good the late River Phoenix was in the last "Indiana Jones" film? That's the sort of actor and performance this series so desperately needs. While the actor's young female contingent of fans may adore him in this (or any) role, his lackluster performance (including the heavily edited stunt work) only further derails the effort.

Of course, the lame when not idiotic script doesn't do him any favors. While I understand and appreciate that the film is playing to a younger and obviously less sophisticated audience, does it, its plot and its characters have to be so dumb?

For instance, after Cody has been given the standard Bondesque array of gadgets and spy do-dads that include some explosive Mentos, he races to stop Spearritt's character from popping one of her own into her mouth. Unless he believes he lost his or she somehow pilfered them, is this the sort of covert operative we want trying to save the world?

It would have been one thing -- and probably a better one at that -- had the character been conceived as a well-intentioned but bumbling Inspector Clouseasu type. Sadly, that's not the case and the character, movie and viewer are thus worse off for the way in which everything plays out.

If the MGM execs figure out how to fix the series' many problems -- meaning jettisoning most if not everyone in front of and behind the camera -- they could have a profitable and possibly enjoyable little franchise on their hands to go along with its bigger cinematic brethren.

After all, like the Bond films, they could simply replace the lead -- since he'd never age and thus they'd avoid him competing with ol' Jimmy Boy -- every few movies and start anew in entertaining younger viewers. If they don't, this could be the disastrous final chapter in the short-lived cinematic serial. "Agent Cody Banks: Destination London" rates as just a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed March 6, 2004 / Posted March 12, 2004

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