Spy Kids

on March 30, 2001 by Annlee Ellingson
   Billed as a James Bond movie for kids (and their parents), "Spy Kids" begins on the grand scale it maintains throughout with an overhead shot that sweeps over the ocean to a seaside castle and into the bedroom window of young siblings Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), who are getting ready for bed. The children listen to a familiar bedtime story about two spies assigned to kill each other but who fall in love instead. Little do they know that it's actually the story of how their own parents, Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) Cortez, met and married--conveyed for the viewing audience in a quick, cheeky flashback sequence that includes Ingrid's snakelike shedding of clothing and wigs as she tails Gregorio, and their wedding ceremony, which was rudely interrupted by helicopters armed with machine guns.

   The Cortezes have settled down since then, jettisoning field work for consulting, but as their former colleagues disappear one by one, they are forced to re-enter the lifestyle to save them. Alas, their spy skills are a little rusty, and they are quickly captured.

   Left behind, Carmen and Juni discover their parents' secret and set out to save them from Floop (Alan Cumming), an inventor who's creating an indestructible army between takes on his children's TV show; "The Flooglies" (whose cartoonish characters are in fact transmogrifications of the missing secret agents), with the help of the Thumb Thumbs, his guards who are, well, all thumbs.

   Writer-director Robert Rodriguez exhibits extraordinary imagination for a grown-up. High-tech gadgetry includes an Isuzu Axiom that transforms into a speedy submarine, jet packs, an airplane built for one (or two small children) and electrostatic chewing gum. Floop's castle--reminiscent of scenes from "The Cell" but not so deranged--features a virtual room in which the door disappears and one walks amongst the clouds and a floor made of puzzle pieces that fall away into oblivion.

   The action, including chases through the air among city skyscrapers and underwater among menacing sharks, is fun and fast-paced.

   Rodriguez doesn't underestimate his young target audience, eschewing slapstick comedy for witty inside jokes at the expense of topics as diverse as the spy genre, Latino culture and showbiz. Here, all it takes to disguise oneself is a faux moustache; Carmen's ridiculously long name is the code to get into password-protected rooms; and when Floop's assistant encourages him to forget his children's show and focus on their diabolical plan, he asks, "What, syndication?"

   The casting, too, is flawless. Banderas is alternatively a sly, sexy spy, an overprotective father and a bumbling fool. Vega is gifted with an inner strength and poise that any girl (or grown woman) would aspire to. Sabora approaches both his lines and his stunts with remarkable confidence, despite his youth. And cameos by Cheech Marin, Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick and George Clooney add comic delight to the mix.

   Rodriguez does resort to the saccharine when it comes to the pic's themes about family values, but in the context of the cartoonish goings-on, it somehow works. The last line of the film is "Keeping a family together -- that's difficult. And that's a mission worth fighting for." Cheesy, but forgivably so. Starring Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. Directed and written by Robert Rodriguez. Produced by Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan. A Miramax release. Family/Action/Comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 83 min

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