Since a family-friendly retelling of the secret agent genre has recently been exhausted with 2001's "Spy Kids
" and 2003's "Agent Cody Banks
," "Catch That Kid" targets heist films, instead. Credit indie director Bart Freundlich (1997's "The Myth of Fingerprints") for treating his protagonists with a naturalistic eye, and kudos to screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious
") for handling the subject matter in a reasonably serious fashion. Unfortunately, these positives are widely outweighed by a startling lack of logic, ludicrous plotting, and some irresponsibly delivered mixed messages for younger audience members.
12-year-old Maddy (Kristen Stewart) is a carefree tomboy who wants to follow in her dad's (Sam Robards) footsteps of being a successful mountain climber. These dreams are abruptly put on hold when her father becomes seriously paralyzed, and her mother (Jennifer Beals) isn't able to come up with the $250,000 needed for his surgery. Wanting nothing more than to help her dad get better, Maddy devises a plan: with the help of her two best friends, computer whiz Austin (Corbin Bleu) and Go-Kart mechanic Gus (Max Thieriot), they will break into the bank Maddy's mom works at and take enough money to pay for the surgery.
Based on the Norwegian family film, "Klatretosen," "Catch That Kid" wants to be a frothy, exciting action picture for kids, but it teaches some glaringly misguided lessons in the process. Although Maddy means well in trying to save her dad's life, she does it by stealing and risking the lives of law enforcement. Then, in a horrid climactic twist, gets away with it without even a stern talking-to. Not only that, there is something decidedly unsettling about a 12-year-old girl who manipulates two same-age boys into aiding in her scheme by telling both parties that she is in love with them.
Looking at the film solely as a heist movie, it works pretty well for a portion of its running time. The second effort in two weeks to fall into this genre, "Catch That Kid" holds notably more tension and imagination than "The Perfect Score
," which dealt with high schoolers stealing the answers to the SAT exam. The heist itself is tautly filmed and edited, and there is a standout edge-of-your-seat moment when Maddy must hang over one hundred feet in the air to reach the bank vault.
What surrounds this action centerpiece is less inspired and actually rather dumb, complete with stale melodrama, an embarrassing fart joke, and inappropriate "Home Alone"-inspired slapstick violence. For a serious, character-driven filmmaker like Bart Freundlich, whose "The Myth of Fingerprints" was an amazingly nuanced ensemble drama, these juvenile gimmicks are all the more disheartening. It's bad enough knowing without even having to be told that the only reason Freundlich was involved with this project was for the paycheck. His heart does not lie in this type of inconsequential film, and it shows.
The performances, both from the kids and the adults, are nothing to brag about. In her first lead role, Kristen Stewart (2002's "Panic Room
," 2003's "The Safety of Objects
") is an unconventional young talent whose turn here as Maddy seems to simply be a detour to bigger and better things. As her companions, Corbin Bleu (1999's "Mystery Men
") barely registers as Austin, and newcomer Max Thieriot (as Gus) still has a lot to learn about acting. In the adult department, Jennifer Beals (2003's "Runaway Jury
") continues to be undervalued in throwaway parts, this time as Maddy's concerned mother, and Freundlich regular James Le Gros (2001's "Lovely & Amazing
") is painfully over-the-top as a security guard.
"Catch That Kid" is a tolerable diversion, occasionally even involving, but it too often falls into the trap of so many other family pictures by alternately pandering and condescending to its pint-sized target audience. In the world these characters inhabit, stealing is all right when you have financial problems, sabotaging a moving police car is just as acceptable when it happens to be chasing you on a city street, and lying to your best friends to serve your own needs can be easily forgiven. The neglectful treatment of these important storytelling details is what ultimately sinks "Catch That Kid" into stolid mediocrity.