Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Running time: 88 minutes
If you were a child and your parents were feeling guilty about not spending enough quality time with you and wanted to make up for it with a movie (“And you can have a smoothie in the theater, honey!”), which movie would you choose? The makers of “Spy Kids” hope mightily that the answer will be this movie, and this alone.
“Spy Kids” opens the doors to a realm of cinema that had been strictly adult territory — espionage, and shares all the genre’s gadgetry, excitement, suave one-liners and miraculous, 11th-hour escapes with children. The only problem is that one can almost see the marketing people standing on the side of the set and barking orders — there’s a whole lot of stress on family values that rather gets in the way of true-blue spy entertainment. I mean, 007 never had to put up with that.
The director is Robert Rodriguez, who debuted years ago with the indie classic “El Mariachi,” an action movie made on the proceeds of Rodriguez selling his own blood. It’s true: The guy checked himself into one of those bloodbank hospitals, and when he came out, he had just enough cash to make what was then the world’s cheapest movie, later picked up by New Line Cinema. Time went by, Rodriguez moved on, and he is now one of Hollywood’s renowned action filmmakers (see “Desperado”).
For “Spy Kids,” he assembles a heavily Latino cast to punch the lights out of the bad (predominantly white) guys and in the process, show the world that blood, especially the Latin kind, is a lot thicker than water, amigos. But action sequences still bear Rodriguez’s signature: Especially enjoyable is a wedding scene ambushed by evil forces. The bride and groom immediately slip into some spy gear and run off a cliff, while the priest makes the sign of the cross over their descending, heart-shaped parachutes. They kiss in a motorboat as the guests raise their glasses.
So here’s the story: Dad (Antonio Banderas) and Mom (Carla Guguino) were once the world’s best spies. They has been working for different sides, but they fell in love, got married, had kids and decided to retire. They now concentrate on raising the family and doing “consulting work” at home. Big sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) and little bro Juni (Daryl Sabara) don’t know of their parents’ glamorous past and just think they’re uncool.
Then one day Dad gets an assignment to locate some missing agents. Mom insists on going with him and they set off, in a snazzy 007-type spy car outfitted with mega-gadgetry and the latest weapons technology. But long years in retirement have rusted their instincts and in a flash, they are taken prisoner by evil media celebrity Floop (Alan Cumming) who hosts a children’s TV show but is really a mad scientist who is plotting, naturally, to take over the world.
When the kids hear about this, they spring into action and go out to save the world and their parents, hopefully at the same time. Out to foil them is Floop’s assistant Alexander Minion (Tony Shalhoub) who has created an army of robots, replicas of real-life existing children programmed to wreak havoc on mankind. The robots however, are not too smart, and Minion desperately needs something called “the third brain” to boost their intelligence. The third brain, however, was developed by Dad years ago, and is now in the hands of Juni and Carmen.
How Dad could have invented such a thing in the first place (after all, he was a spy and not a scientist) is never explained, but never mind: This is fun. After lots of running up and down the dark corridors of Floop’s castle, the kids meet up with their parents. Can they convince Floop to switch sides and work with the good guys for a change? What about those robokids, who can’t tell right from wrong?
Well, anyway, the family is reunited by a better, stronger bond: The bond of spyhood (whatever that is). From now on, they will work together as a team, since as Carmen puts it: “Spy work is easy. The real challenge is keeping a family together.”
Uh-huh. Would James Bond care to comment?