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Dustin Putman

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Agent Cody Banks (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Harald Zwart
Cast: Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff, Angie Harmon, Cynthia Stevenson, Daniel Roebuck, Keith David, Arnold Vosloo, Ian McShane, Martin Donovan, Darrell Hammond, Connor Widdows, Chang Tseng
2003 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for violence, mild language, and some sensual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 15, 2003.

A James Bond/"Spy Kids" hybrid geared toward a younger audience than the former and a slightly older audience than the latter, "Agent Cody Banks" is as harmless and inconsequential as it is relentlessly unimaginative. The plot and all of its body parts almost religiously stays true to the "007" formula, beginning with an opening action sequence separate from what follows, then segueing into the introduction of the villains, the pawns, the sidekicks, the high-tech gadgets, and the beautiful love interest. The catch? The suave secret agent at the center of it all is an unpopular high schooler so unrefined at dealing with the opposite sex that he is usually asked the same question by every girl he tries to talk to: "Are you in Special Ed?"

Unbeknownst to his parents, 15-year-old Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz) is a member of an elite group of teenage C.I.A. agents. His latest mission is delivered to him from his voluptuous new handler, Ronica Miles (Angie Harmon). In order to find out about a brilliant scientist (Martin Donovan) possibly in cahoots with a megalomaniac (Ian McShane) set on–yep, you guessed it–world domination, Cody must enroll into a posh private school and get close to the scientist's cutie pie daughter, Natalie Connors (Hilary Duff). The most difficult part of the assignment, however, turns out not to be the life-or-death situations Cody is thrust into, but his inexperience in simply talking to Natalie.

Directed by Harald Zwart (2001's "One Night at McCool's"), credit "Agent Cody Banks" for lasting 105 minutes and not seeming a second over 60. Fast-paced and disposably enjoyable, the film is an action-comedy that will undoubtedly satisfy preteens everywhere, but leave all others wishing for something more. The story particulars are so unremittingly hair-brained and ridiculous that viewers would be best off to unconcern themselves and simply breathe in the occasionally exciting stunts, the half-plausible, half-cheesy special effects, and the likable camaraderie of the cast.

The first half, in which Cody meets and slowly warms up to Natalie enough to endear her, is superior to its more conventional, action-oriented second half, which includes a snowboarding chase, a whirlybird contraption that flies Ronica and Cody around on, and a mountainside explosion. It is all rather dumbly daffy, yet winning in its own right. At the same time, screenwriters Zack Stentz, Ashley Miller, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski are far too willing to paint every teen character aside from Cody and Natalie as stereotypical airheads and bullies without any semblance of heart. The movie is a fantasy, to be sure, but would it have been so difficult to inject its adolescent depiction with at least a modicum of realism.

As for Cody and Natalie, they are wafer-thin sweethearts as blandly "nice" as one would ever hope to find. Aside from his secret government spy job, Cody has no real interests and zero depth. Natalie–whose hobbies are based solely on a manufactured line of dialogue rather than through the natural actions of the character–is never allowed to grow beyond Cody's alternating object of affection and damsel in distress. Both television superstars within their age frame, Frankie Muniz ("Malcolm in the Middle") and Hilary Duff ("Lizzie McGuire") have squeaky clean charisma to spare, but no true discernible acting abilities. Muniz's last foray into feature films, 2002's "Big Fat Liar," was wittier and smarter by a half, while Duff (in her movie debut) is, well, easy on the eyes. As the friendly, no-nonsense Ronica, Angie Harmon (previously of TV's "Law and Order") is a fresh face who, with her sly comic talents, could easily act circles around her younger co-stars.

"Agent Cody Banks" has an eager-to-please quality that cannot be denied, but it is so derivative and so empty that it fades from memory simultaneously as it is playing itself out onscreen. For a 12-year-old with a crush on either Muniz or Duff, the film will be an eight-dollar ticket to Heaven. For everyone else, the experience will be a wasteful, if painless, diversion. Had there been an ounce of originality or an element of surprise offered up, the idea of its collective four screenwriters wouldn't seem like such a genuinely silly prospect.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman