The spy genre has grown rather tiresome in recent years, with each entry into the James Bond film series (such as "The World is Not Enough") sinking the venerable franchise further into banality. Even last summer's "Mission: Impossible 2", with Hong Kong action auteur John Woo at the helm, suffered from a dearth of imagination and inventiveness beneath all the double-fisted shootouts and slo-mo sheen. Now Robert Rodriguez, a John-Woo-schooled writer/director who found fame during the Nineties with his shoestring-budgeted "El Mariachi", gets his shot at making his own spy flick with "Spy Kids". And despite Rodriguez's association with blood-and-guts action films such as "Desperado" and "From Dusk Till Dawn", he successfully manages to both invigorate the ailing genre with some new ideas, as well as allows this critic to use the words 'kick-ass' and 'family film' in the same sentence and mean it.
Gregorio (Antonio Banderas of "The Mask of Zorro") and Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino of "Snake Eyes") are like any other married couple-- they are well-to-do urban professionals with a nice home and two children, Carmen (Alexa Vega of "Twister") and Juni (newcomer Daryl Sabara). However, they also happen to be a couple of retired secret agents, and when they are called out of retirement to track down some missing spies and subsequently captured, it's up to the kids to save them. Principal baddie is Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming, seen recently in "Get Carter"), whose highly-rated television show and merchandising empire is actually a cover for his diabolical scheme of world domination. Floop is assisted by his minion, named Minion (Tony Shalhoub of "Galaxy Quest"), and together, they plan to replace the children of prominent politicians with deadly robots. The only problem is that the robots, dubbed 'spy kids', are not yet able to pass as real children due to a lack of brainpower-- a problem for which Gregorio holds the key to a solution.
"Spy Kids" easily straddles the line between something to delight the kids, as well as a film that will entertain their paying parents. Similar to how Ronny Yu's "Warriors of Virtue" brought the conventions of the wu shu epic to the pre-teen set back in 1997, "Spy Kids" infuses the trappings of the spy genre (and a little dash of John Woo) to the family film. Rodriguez concocts an easy mix of parody, breathtaking action sequences, and all the things you would expect from a James Bond film (including the gizmos) into a snappily-paced package that will have you uttering "I've never seen that before" more times than you would expect. However, being a 'family film', the action sequences never get too 'serious' or disturbing. In addition, Rodriguez doesn't skimp on imparting some 'family values', which he manages to do without slapping the syrup on thick.
And what is particularly amazing is that "Spy Kids" was made for only $36 million, the frugal director's biggest budget to date. Though the widespread use of CGI is readily apparent, it doesn't detract from the film, and actually enhances the giddy cartoonishness of the film. Robot henchmen called 'thumb thumps' shaped like the Yellow Pages logo (and 'all thumbs' when it comes to actually doing something useful), a ridiculously small spy plane, a 'virtual reality' room, and a production design inspired by Dr. Seuss are just a few of the riotous touches found in this larger-than-life kid flick.
The cast contains a number of recognizable faces, many of whom are alumni of previous Rodriguez productions. At the center of the action are the two child actors, Vega and Sabara, who carry the film with their earnest performances and likeable charm-- they are certainly cute, but they don't go as far as being cringe-inducingly cute. As their parents, Banderas and Gugino acquit themselves well, as do Cumming and Shalhoub as the megaolmaniacal villains. Returning for yet another Rodriguez outing are Robert Patrick (Agent Doggett of "The X-Files") as the man bankrolling Floop's operation, Cheech Marin ("From Dusk Till Dawn") as the 'uncle' of the kids, Danny Trejo ("Con Air") successfully cast-against-type as a spy gadgets inventor, and a great cameo by George Clooney ("The Perfect Storm"). Finally, an almost unrecognizable Teri Hatcher ("Tomorrow Never Dies") shows up as Gregorio and Ingrid's boss, who is having a bad hair day.
Apparently, Rodriguez first found himself inspired to make "Spy Kids" on the set of "Four Rooms", where he directed Antonio Banderas in a scene where he had to baby-sit two brats. Dressed to the nines, the director wondered what it would be like if the two kids in the scene were actually spies in the mold of tuxedo-wearing James Bond. As a result, he struck a deal with the Dimension Films arm of Miramax-- he would direct "The Faculty" in exchange for a greenlight on "Spy Kids". Judging from what I saw today, it certainly looks as though the gamble has paid off handsomely.