Save the world. Get the girl. Pass math.
Spy Kids in the Middle, with a side order of Lizzie McGuire to go.
Facts of the Case
The CIA faces a sticky national security challenge. Intelligence reports reveal that a scientist named Connors (Martin Donovan, Insomnia), a specialist in nanotechnology (microscopic robots, for the benefit of the non-sci-fi fans in our audience) may have been lured to the dark side by sinister underworld forces bent on world domination. (Aren't they always?) But Dr. Connors is so reclusive that the Agency hasn't been able to get close to him. As a last resort, the Three-Letter Outfit's head honcho (underused character actor Keith David, Pitch Black, Head of State) calls in one of its top-secret junior agents, a gawky Seattle 15-year-old named Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz, Malcolm in the Middle, Deuces Wild). Cody's mission: cozy up to the scientist's pretty blonde daughter, Natalie (Hilary Duff, The Lizzie McGuire Movie and its parent Disney Channel series).
Problem is, Cody has been thoroughly trained in the martial arts, high performance driving, and the skilled use of an infinite supply of electronic gadgets straight out of the Q Division catalog, but he knows next to nothing about the ways of the opposite sex. And by the time he's fumbled his way into the fair Natalie's heart, Cody has blown his cover, been yanked from the mission by his CIA mentor Ronica Miles (Angie Harmon, Female ADA #3 on TV's Law and Order, displaying an alarming degree of Wonderbra-enhanced décolletage), and inadvertently escalated the activities of the Blofeldesque Dr. Brinkman (Ian McShane, Sexy Beast, Nemesis Game) and his Mohawked henchman Francois (Arnold Vosloo, The Mummy), who want to use Connors' nanobots to destroy the U.S. military-industrial complex.
When Brinkman kidnaps Natalie as a pawn to insure that Connors completes the nanobot programming, the decommissioned Cody is the last hope for rescuing the girl, stopping the mad scientists, and saving the world. Of course, for America's greatest teenage secret agent, it's all in a day's work.
Agent Cody Banks may well be the most cynical film this reviewer has seen all summer. It didn't need to be. Robert Rodriguez has proven conclusively over the past few years with the Spy Kids franchise that the concept of pint-sized 007s ridding the world of evildoers can be cracking good fun. And this movie comes straight from the House That Bond Kept Alive—MGM—which by now ought to know a thing or two about making an enjoyable, rollicking espionage yarn that keeps the audience on the edge of its collective seat.
But instead, we have Agent Cody Banks, a film for people who enjoy sitting in corporate boardrooms rather than theaters. I can envision the marketing meeting that spawned it. Eight well-manicured, middle-aged beancounters are lounging around a conference table toking smuggled Montecristos as a fresh-faced junior executive runs a PowerPoint slide show on a wall-sized plasma screen.
"Here's the deal, J.B.," says the young MBA. "Think James Bond, only younger."
"Didn't Disney or somebody already do that?" grumbles Larry from Accounting.
"Yes," huffs Junior, "but our kids will be older, like teenagers, so the girl will have breasts and everything."
"Breasts are good," pipes up Bill from Investor Relations. "Can we get more than two?"
"No sweat, Bill. We'll cast a supermodel with no acting talent and dress her like a dominatrix with cleavage down to her navel."
"Dominatrix? I thought this was a kids' movie?"
"Yeah, but who takes kids to the movies? Dads, am I right? What would you rather see on custody weekend, J.B.—Antonio Banderas and his little sissy moustache, or Angie Harmon busting out of her top?"
"I'm convinced. Here's $26 million. Run with it."
What the tyro from the Wharton School forgot to tell the bigwigs is that he planned to blow the entire budget on whiz-bang gadgetry, PlayStation-grade CGI, and fetish wear, leaving all of $1.98 to pay five standees from the soup line at the Hollywood Rescue Mission to scribble a screenplay on the back side of their cardboard "Will Script for Food" signs. Mr. Junior MBA also neglected to point out that the guy he hired to helm this putative "family adventure" is Norwegian video director Harald Zwart, whose misogynistic previous feature, One Night at McCool's, showcased as its premier attraction a wet 'n' soapy Liv Tyler washing a car with her anatomy while dressed like Claudia Jennings in Gator Bait. Detect a trend here? I knew you would.
The script (isn't there a rule that the more writers listed in the credits, the worse the screenplay will be?) is as flat as a trilobite fossil and just about as lifeless. Part of the challenge is that director Zwart and his cadre of scribes couldn't decide whether the film should be a comedy or an action picture. What therefore happens is that the funny parts are never funny enough (or at all, more often than not), and the rock-'em-sock-'em stuff lacks the grit and energy to be truly exciting. When Cody's high-voltage wristwatch electrifies one of his classmates in an early scene, I immediately started looking at my own…and did so with clockwork regularly every two or three minutes for the next hour-plus.
Agent Cody Banks contains an incredible amount of smarmy sexual innuendo (and not-so-innuendo), given that it's PG-rated and targeted at middle-schoolers. A few examples:
• The first time we meet Ronica Miles, she's entering a high
school boys' locker room dressed like a field representative from the Heidi
Fleiss Personal Services Agency. She snatches the towel off a freshly showered
adolescent, is immediately propositioned by another, and whipcracks a third
right in the family jewels.
What's up with all this borderline softcore stuff in a kiddie flick? And there's something intensely creepy—I mean creepy like that history teacher in your high school who used to peer down female students' blouses during class—about seeing Hilary Duff, who's still below the age of consent in every state except Arkansas, showcased in body-hugging, skin-baring fashions throughout most of the film. The word is pandering, MGM—look it up. Then again, what do you expect from a movie executive-produced by Madonna?
The cast members are uncomfortable in this warped territory, and it shows. Frankie Muniz, a talented young actor with the goofy charm of a pint-sized Tom Hanks circa Big, looks lost at sea playing action hero. Hilary Duff, whose natural, camera-capturing effervescence in her now abandoned Disney TV series masked a singular absence of genuine emotive talent, is wasted in the thankless damsel-in-distress role. Angie Harmon reprises the one-and-one-half facial expressions and monotone vocal timbre on which she coasted through three seasons of Law and Order, albeit this time with a more abbreviated wardrobe. The villains—and Cody's family, unlike the rich relationships portrayed in the Spy Kids trilogy—are so underwritten as to be almost nonexistent. The only people who appear to be having a good time are Keith David, who gets to gnaw a little scenery as the gruff CIA boss, and Saturday Night Live's Darrell Hammond, who turns up in several enthusiastically played but criminally unfunny moments as the movie's answer to Desmond Llewellyn.
Even with all of the ethical and executionary qualms stated above, Agent Cody Banks is a slick looking, technically accomplished film. The endless stream of gadgetry and gizmos is impressive, if credulity-stretching. CIA Headquarters comes off more like a leftover set from Gattaca (come on—who really thinks everyone is tooling around the CIA complex on Segways?) than anything remotely related to real life. I especially liked the Solotrek helicopter jetpacks—trés cool. If only the script was as fresh and modern as the toys.
MGM delivers a solid package with the Agent Cody Banks DVD. We begin with your choice of transfers: an anamorphic widescreen version on one side, and the heartbreak of pan 'n' scan on the flipside. If you choose the latter, you deserve whatever you find. The anamorphic flavor is strangely variable, ranging anywhere from near-reference quality to merely average. The chief issues have to do with contrast and clarity. Slightly soft overall throughout the presentation, the image degrades to downright fuzzy in a few spots. Colors remain uniformly strong—it's definition and depth, particularly in darker sequences, where the problem is evident. If you're watching on a smaller TV or sitting well back from the set, you might not even notice, but on my 35" screen, the image quality is disappointing. MGM can do—and usually does—better.
The presentation rebounds nicely in the sound department. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio produces full, warm sound, with more than adequate bump at the bottom for the splashy effects shots. Surrounds are consistently active, as they should be in an action picture, but never harsh or overbearing. Dialogue is discrete and well positioned.
MGM populates the disc with a noteworthy sampling of extras. An audio commentary teams director Harald Zwart with co-stars Frankie Muniz and Angie Harmon for scene-specific chat. This track takes some time to gear up—Harmon doesn't even arrive in the booth until several minutes into the film—but once the three participants relax into their conversation, they bring some interesting insights into the production. It's not the deepest or most analytical commentary you'll ever hear (come on—it's a kid, Mrs. Jason Sehorn, and a guy from Norway, not Ebert and Roeper), but those who enjoyed the film will probably like this, too.
You want featurettes? Documentary short subjects? Electronic press kit folderol? Well, my friend, you've come to the right DVD. You've got a whopping ten (use all your fingers, kids) mini-movies to peruse for your full-bore Cody Banks fix. Unfortunately, you can't hit a single button and play them all sequentially, so viewing the whole smorgasbord becomes a bit of a workout with the remote. And, as well produced as these docu-clips are, the format quickly posed an annoyance to the Judge—did I really need to endure Leo the MGM lion roaring at the start of every single featurette? Or the same scroll of credits whizzing past at the end of each one? No, I didn't think so, either. But here's what you get:
• Developing Agent Cody Banks (4:51)—a look
into motion picture pre-production, including casting and location scouting in
the Pacific Northwest, where principal photography took place.
I'm sure most of you will be sated with Codyiana just from the above, but keep that button-punching thumb handy. You also can thrill to a pair of Storyboard-to-Film Comparisons, three multiangle scenes you can check out from a variety of visual perspectives, a sextet of deleted scenes that can be played individually or continuously (now why didn't they do this with the featurettes?), an outtake reel, a couple of photo galleries, the film's theatrical trailer, and a handful of previews for other MGM product. By the time you pop this disc out of your player, you, too, will be a walking, talking junior secret agent ready to save the world. Or perhaps you'll just need a nap. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fortunately for those who've been already subjected to her noxious and shrill pop warbling in The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Ms. Duff refrains from singing in this picture, thereby earning the sincere thanks of a grateful nation.
A missed opportunity. Maybe the Spy Kids trilogy has thoroughly tapped out the baby-Bond idea train, but I doubt it. More likely, adults without a clue concocted this mess with a view to their own jaded tastes, rather than what would really entertain kids. This one's strictly for voyeurs and stage mothers only.
Director Harald Zwart and company are found guilty of imposing MTV sensibility on adolescent adventure, to the cheers of lechers everywhere. The adult members of the cast and crew are sentenced to a year busting suds in the kitchen of their neighborhood Hooters franchise, as a form of aversion therapy. For dragging her daughter into this mess, Hilary Duff's mom is sentenced to a long summer reading The Anissa Jones Story. Ms. Duff and her co-star, not being legally responsible for the contracts that get signed on their behalf, are free to go.
Court is in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Harald Zwart and Actors Frankie Muniz and Angie Harmon
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