For someone who has directed a blood-drenched $5,000 indie about a mariachi with a gun disguised as a guitar holder (1993's "El Mariachi"), a ghastly, foul-mouthed vampire epic (1996's "From Dusk Till Dawn"), and a high school-set horror movie about alien teachers (1998's "The Faculty"), it would seem like an odd choice for director Robert Rodriguez to next choose a family film, but that is what he has done. Then again, as he has proven thus far in his career, Rodriguez is completely disinterested in following a conventional filmmaking pattern, instead making any given movie in any genre that he feels like.
"Spy Kids" is a fun-filled, if slight, children's variation on James Bond, with two child protagonists, lots of action, spiffy special effects, and an overabundance of neat gadgets. There are no life-threateniong weapons to be found here, nor is there any graphic violence, proving that it is possible to make a quality action movie that the entire family will be able to enjoy equally.
Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) are siblings who live in peace and happiness with their parents, Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid Cortez (Carla Gugino). As Ingrid spins fascinating bedtime stories night after night about star-crossed lovers who originally were international spies on opposing sides, until they married and settled down, Carmen and Juni have no idea that the tales are actually about their own mother and father. Gregorio and Ingrid love their children, but after years of downtime, they thirst for their old jobs as spies, and quickly go off on an assignment. Not being as quick-witted as they once were, they are quickly captured by Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a dastardly children's show host who is planning to take over the world by creating robotic replicas of every child in existence. When Fegan's evil henchmen, including two played by Teri Hatcher (1996's "2 Days in the Valley") and Robert Patrick ("The Faculty"), come looking for the Cortez offsprings, it is up to Juni and Carmen to go on the run, all the while setting off to rescue their parents.
While far from perfect, "Spy Kids" is an intermittently dynamite entertainment that, sure enough, manages to be exciting, with hair-raising stunts and plenty of non-violent fight scenes that have no danger of offending anyone. The visual effects are creative and mostly believable, particularly for the picture's relatively low $30-million budget, as they include underwater and aerial chases, a place called the Virtual Room that puts the characters into different settings that only appear to be there, and floors that drop out like jigsaw puzzles.
In transporting a James Bond thriller into a family movie, the screenplay, also by Robert Rodriguez, is imaginative and light-hearted, as he also throws in a few odes to his previous movies, including a very funny slow-motion shot of Carmen and Juni coolly walking down the aisle of a department store, equipped with sunglasses and long, draping clothing. I could have most definitely done without, however, some of the throwaway puns and jokey dialogue that are supposed to be clever and humorous, but come off as overly juvenile, even for a film targeted at the kiddies. These moments of corniness are thankfully brief and not abundant in number, so it is easy to ignore them and move your mind towards the next scene.
Directing children has to be a challenge for any director, especially if they are aiming for realism, and Alexa Vega (1999's "The Deep End of the Ocean") and newcomer Daryl Sabara are up to the challenge. Both succeed at dodging the ever-dreaded unctuous-factor, and interact like true siblings--ones who love each other, help each other out when things get rough, but are also apt to argue and feud. Pure performance-wise, Vega is a step above Sabara, as she is a really talented find, while Sabara still has a large amount to learn regarding subtlety.
The adults play second banana throughout to the kids, with Carla Gugino (1998's "Snake Eyes") and Antonio Banderas (1999's "Play It to the Bone") underused, but effective, as the kidnapped parents, and Alan Cumming (2000's "Get Carter") a standout as the allegedly villainous Fegan Floop, who may or may not be slowly growing a conscious heart. Added amusement comes from a surprise cameo in the final scene featuring a big, "A"-list actor who has worked with Rodriguez in the past.
At a blink-and-you'll-miss-it 86 minutes, "Spy Kids" is needlessly brief, and could have benefitted from a little more development and a stronger third act, which comes off as anticlimactic. The fact that the movie is so fast-paced, no doubt, also contributes to the feeling that it is about twenty minutes too short. Flawed or not, "Spy Kids" is one of those rare breeds--a live-action family film that relies on intelligence and adventure to tell its story, rather than flatulence and doggy-do-do jokes.
©2001 by Dustin Putman