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Dustin Putman

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Thunderbirds (2004)

Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Cast: Brady Corbet, Soren Fulton, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Sophia Myles, Anthony Edwards, Ron Cook, Rose Keegan, Philip Winchester, Dominic Colenso, Ben Torgersen, Genie Francis
2004 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for action and mild language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 24, 2004.

There are two kinds of bad films, one better than the other. The recent "Catwoman" places in the first category, of movies so misguided and goofily terrible that they offer a certain kind of campy entertainment value. "Thunderbirds," based on a television action show that starred marionettes, falls splat in the more lowly category, of movies so mindnumbingly awful and creatively worthless that they are physically painful to sit through. 90 minutes may not seem like a long time, but "Thunderbirds" makes sure that it feels like a short lifetime.

This summer's "Spy Kids" wannabe, "Thunderbirds" makes this past spring's clone, "Catch That Kid," look like a sophisticated, scholarly masterpiece in comparison. International Rescue is a top-secret organization of adventurers who travel to the ends of the world on dangerous missions. The head of International Rescue is former astronaut and entrepreneur Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton), whose teenager son, Alan (Brady Corbet), feels left out of the exciting family business. When their headquarters, Tracy Island, is ambushed by master criminal The Hood (Ben Kingsley), whose long-winded plan involves stealing the organization's five technologically advanced and engineered flying vehicles—known as Thunderbirds—and performing a bank robbery in London, Alan and his two friends, Fermat (Soren Fulton) and Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens), take it upon themselves to put a stop to the evil plan and save Alan's family. And if he succeeds, maybe, just maybe, Alan will finally earn a place alongside his dad and brothers as a member of the Thunderbirds.

As the minutes ever so slowly ticked by, the same thought kept entering my mind: "Thunderbirds" may have a bigger budget, but it is just about as close to one of those ultra-cheesy, ultra-bad Ed Wood-style sci-fi pictures of the '50s and '60s as any modern movie ever has gotten outside of direct homages (1998's "I Woke Early the Day I Died," 2003's "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra"). Directed by Jonathan Frakes (2002's "Clockstoppers"), it is never clear whether "Thunderbirds" is intentionally silly to the point of parody or merely a complete catastrophe. Either way, the movie isn't funny, testing the viewer's threshold for torture as it trots out a tacky animated opening credits sequence that plays like a discarded "alternate opening" DVD special feature; shudder-worthy cornball dialogue that would only pass muster in Ed Wood's oeuvre; acting so wooden and half-hearted that the television-version marionettes would likely have given more emotive performances; a long-winded premise so decrepit and desperate it comes off feeling like "Spy Kids 48;" and sporadic action, devoid of the "intensity" described in the MPAA's rating reason.

Brady Corbet (2003's "Thirteen") tries to do what he can with his lead role as young Alan Tracy, but he is awash in a black hole, getting no help from his co-stars or the Cliche Writers 101 Handbook (read: screenplay) by William Osborne (2002's "The Scorpion King") and Michael McCullers (2002's "Austin Powers in Goldmember"). Vanessa Anne Hudgens (also from "Thirteen") is one of the most glaringly stilted child performers in memory, as friend Tintin. Her dialogue is mercifully minimal in an attempt to hide her inadequacies, but to no avail.

Bill Paxton (2002's "Frailty") embarrasses himself as the overwrought Jeff Tracy, reciting some of the film's most frightening lines, usually about the importance of family and the dues that must be paid before one can become a Thunderbird adventurer. As the maniacal The Hood, Ben Kingsley wears a lot of eye shadow in a role he must have been bribed or brainwashed into taking, especially after his Oscar-nominated turn in 2003's "House of Sand and Fog." Saving "Thunderbirds" from a dreaded "no stars" rating is Sophia Myles (2001's "From Hell"), as the kind but uppity Lady Penelope. Myles is the only one who seems to realize what a turkey she has gotten herself into, and answers the call of duty by hamming it up with knowing sarcasm. In a better film, Sophia Myles could be a charmer.

The final thirty minutes play like a never-ending nightmare that the viewer—both adults, who will be in misery, and children, who deserve more credit—cannot wake up from. As the action moves to London and the chase to stop The Hood gets underway, the movie surpasses being a sheer endurance test and transcends into twisted self-torture for anyone who has decided to sit it out to the closing credits. Every time the story appears to be winding down, Jeff Tracy is quick to say, "Our mission isn't over quite yet." By the time the end really does come, you may find yourself experiencing a fantasy of finding all the copies of the picture and burning the negatives. "Thunderbirds" is terminal family fare, sloppy, boring, dumbed-down and heinous. Each ticket stub sold should come with a guarantee of shriveling your brain cells.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman