by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
What was James Bond like when he was 12? That's the premise of writer-director Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids series. The brother-and-sister team of Carmen and Juni Cortez charmed audiences in the low-budget original, a surprising hit in that it came from a director usually associated with bloodbaths (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn). Seeing the Hollywood Grail before him -- the movie franchise -- Rodriguez went for a sequel.
Using filmmaking tricks akin to his kids' gadgets to keep the budget low again (you'll see shades of Ray Harryhausen), Rodriguez manages to keep the disbelief moderately suspended. But let's be clear; some of these special effects are laughably bad.
It's hard to say who he made this film for: 12-year-olds or their parents. Kids have no idea who Ricardo Montalban is, and his appearances as Carmen and Juni's grandpa don't have much impact unless you're old enough to remember Fantasy Island. His casting seems designed to amuse adults -- as it is also with Steve Buscemi's mad scientist, Bill Paxton's theme park owner and Cheech Marin's guy who shows up occasionally for no good reason. But it doesn't get much beyond amusing, as everyone (except Paxton) seems to be on autopilot. Spy Parents Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino seem particularly lost. And you'd think the great Buscemi could really run with a mad scientist role, but he plays it straight.
Rodriguez's story is by the numbers, too, with the kids on the outs with the agency, needing to uncover some double-crossing among their higher-ups. So they journey to an island filled with genetic experiments gone wrong, which makes for some of the film's best moments. I'm sure preteens love this stuff, but it can't compete with what's just around the corner in the realm of PG-13 films like Spiderman and Attack of the Clones. Still, it has a certain campy charm, and it's fun to watch how Rodriguez gets the most bang for his buck: Austin stands in for Washington, D.C., and Big Bend National Park becomes an island off the coast of Africa. He even devotes a special feature on the DVD to discussing his penny-pinching ways.
Big-name actors in forgettable parts, gadgets that get breathless introductions never to be seen again and cheesy special effects don't seem to be slowing this train down, as Spy Kids 2 did good business. The biggest concern Rodriguez has is that his kids are growing up. After maybe one more, he'll have to replace them and hope nobody notices (they probably won't) or start a new franchise with a less catchy title: Spy Young Adults.
Publication date: 03/20/03