Screenplay : Robert Rodriguez
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Antonio Banderas (Gregorio Cortez), Carla Gugino (Ingrid Cortez), Alexa Vega (Carmen Cortez), Daryl Sabara (Juni Cortez), Alan Cumming (Fegan Floop), Cheech Marin (Uncle Felix), Tony Shalhoub (Minion), Danny Trejo (Uncle Machete), Teri Hatcher (Ms. Gradenko), Robert Patrick (Mr. Lisp)
Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids is a high-octane children's fantasy in which a couple of kids find out that their parents are not only retired secret agents, but they have been kidnapped by an arch-villain and it is up to the two kids to save the day. It's the ultimate kid's dream come true in the way everything about reality is inverted to their liking. Adults become the victims in need of help, children become the rescuers, and the complex gray moral spectrum that characterizes the adult world is simplified to a comfortable split of good and evil.
Rodriguez, the auteur behind the hyper-violent south-of-the-border revenge flick Desperado (1995) and the Tarantino-scripted crime/horror hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), throws the same energy and vigor into the Spy Kids, turning what might have been an ordinary kids' movie into a vibrant, creative thrill ride that is long on imagination and gleefully short on logic. Rodriguez shows that he is still a kid at heart, and he knows what makes the under-12 crowd tick. This is a kids' movie through and through, but Rodriguez doesn't talk down to his audience. He speaks on their level, but you can tell it's a level he loves to be on.
Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino stars as Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, retired super-spies. Gregorio and Ingrid were once enemies, but they ended up falling in love, getting married, and starting a family (their history is creatively told as a bedtime story to their children, which has the brilliantly disarming effect of merging fantasy and reality). They are pulled out of retirement when secret agents begin to disappear at an alarming speed. Unfortunately, Gregorio and Ingrid are also captured, and they find themselves at the mercy of Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming), a slightly demented genius who is like Willy Wonka gone horribly wrong. Floop has a highly rated children's TV show, but on the side he is building a robot army bent on taking over the world.
Gregorio and Ingrid's two children, 12-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega) and 9-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara) learn what has happened to their parents, and realize that it is up to them to save the day. What follows is a fast-paced, hectic adventure replete with outlandish gizmos and spy technology, wild chases on land, sea, and underwater, and plenty of purposefully bad puns and in-jokes.
Rodriguez keeps the movie moving full-throttle at all times (sometimes he pushes the accelerator a little too hard to the floorboard), filling the screen with bizarre creations that could only come from a child's imagination (although, in retrospect, I can imagine some re-reading the film as a wacky acid trip). One of the subplots involves Floop's use of a machine to mutate secret agents into grotesque creatures that then appear on his TV show as sidekicks who speak backwards. Floop's henchmen, however, are the movie's strangest concoction: Called Thumb-Thumbs, they are robots who are, literally, all thumbs, from their heads to their legs.
Despite the movie's luridly cartoonish over-the-topness, Rodriguez keeps it grounded in the characters of Carmen and Juni, who are both believable kids with problems and worries. Although they manage to save the day, Rodriguez invests his two mini-James Bonds with an unmistakable human quality that is largely missing from a lot of movies that put kids on-screen the way the creators imagine kids would want to see themselves, not as they really are. Rodriguez manages to do both at the same time.
Of course, children who see Spy Kids will likely be enraptured by the movie's surface pace and visual excitement, but deep inside they will relate to the protagonists on a level beyond mere imagination. It is that additional level of commitment that Rodriguez brings to the movie--not just to blow viewers out of their seats, but to create meaningful characters who might have something to say--that elevates the project above so many others.
©2001 James Kendrick