Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The Junior Recruit

The spy kids aren’t alright in the misbegotten Agent Cody Banks.

By KRISTIAN LIN

If you’re going to make a film about a 15-year-old kid who’s a secret agent for the CIA, saving the world in James Bond fashion, you need to create an entire fantasy environment that would lend credibility to that scenario. In Agent Cody Banks, Harald Zwart, the Norwegian filmmaker who directed One Night at McCool’s, tries to do this with candy colors and gadgets and sets with lots of shiny metal and character actors overacting as hard as they can. It doesn’t work. The result remains stubbornly earthbound in a way that makes you appreciate the Spy Kids franchise.

The titular agent (Frankie Muniz) passes for an ordinary 15-year-old kid with a fondness for skateboarding, doting parents, and an annoying little brother. No one knows that he’s been in a CIA training program, preparing for his first assignment. That turns out to be dealing with a reclusive mad scientist (Martin Donovan — how’d he wind up here?) whose work with nanotechnology is about to fall into the hands of a businessman with dreams of world domination. Cody’s assignment is to ingratiate himself with the only person close to the scientist, the man’s daughter (Hilary Duff). Unfortunately, this is Cody’s Achilles heel. Even though he’s trained in karate and a science wizard and drives fancy cars — on loan from the agency, of course — he freezes up whenever he tries to talk to a girl.

The story contains a germ of a promising idea, but the run-of-the-mill spy plot is the film’s downfall. This is a kids’ movie; the spy plot should be wackier and more off-the-wall instead of something that could have been taken straight from the umpteenth James Bond flick. The visuals don’t help, either. When Cody enters the spy world, you can’t help but notice how much the sets look like sets. Compare that with Robert Rodriguez’s approach to the Spy Kids movies, which are no less artificial but persuade us of their reality through bizarre special effects and characters with strange obsessions.

The dialogue isn’t particularly funny, despite the contributions of co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt). Muniz and Duff are too insubstantial to counterbalance a supporting cast that’s constantly screaming their lines at top volume. In this context, Angie Harmon as Cody’s CIA handler does the smart thing and maintains her aura of professional cool, which is not easy to do given the outlandish outfits she’s decked out in. (This being a kids’ film, said outfits are skintight rather than revealing.)

Even so, the filmmakers stretch her beyond her capabilities by sending her character undercover. It’s sadly typical of this film, which always seems to be putting a foot wrong. Agent Cody Banks strains mightily, but it never gets the imaginative spark that might bring its fantasy world to life.


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