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Spy Kids   B-

Dimension Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Alan Cumming, Teri Hatcher, Tony Shalhoub, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Apart from Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love (first released two weeks ago in Milwaukee, signifying how Midwest viewers are often treated as second-class citizens), Spy Kids was the only major March release I was looking forward to. Primarily, I was interested in how Robert Rodriguez, a rare young director with a truly personal visual style, would extend his action aesthetic -- rehearsed for nearly 10 years in four previous features -- into the genre of children's adventure.

Rodriguez earned fame as a maverick budget-pincher in 1992, when he required only $7,000 to make El Mariachi, a claustrophobic Mexican shoot-'em-up. Each time I have seen El Mariachi, I have been struck by how Rodriguez balanced humor with the threat of violence; Spy Kids manages a similar trick, harmonizing feel-good family-value homilies with psychedelic action reveries. The movie, which concerns young siblings who discover their parents are master spies, opens with a beautiful, corny daydream: Two rival espionage agents, secretly married, must escape government assassins by vaulting over a cliff. Engulfed by bullets, they float to safety by opening their matching, heart-shaped parachutes. To find a moment as delicate in a Rodriguez film, we must return to El Mariachi and the scene where Consuela Gomez menaces the bathing, bewildered Carlos Gallardo with an envelope-opener until he serenades her.

That scene's unusual insinuation of violence remains the greatest pleasure of El Mariachi, but it's not why Rodriguez was lured to Hollywood. It was the success of his visceral, ingenious gun duels -- inspired by Leone and the Marx Brothers -- which prompted Columbia Pictures to grant Rodriguez $7 million to make Desperado, a 1995 follow-up to El Mariachi. Ample funds -- the best toy for a film director -- seemed to jinx Rodriguez: the squalid sequel proved him a director capable of angry barbarism. Abandoning any sense of texture, Rodriguez staged nonsense mayhem, treating death not with indifference, but as an activity to be noted only for its aesthetic qualities. (In Desperado, a man's existence is validated if, when he's killed, blood spurts magnificently.) By replacing logic with style, Rodriguez inadvertently disabled his narrative: If death is such a nonchalant event, why should the mariachi bother to avenge the murder of his girlfriend?

After contributing a short film to Four Rooms, Rodriguez's next two Hollywood features were From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty. If Desperado represented the lapse of a neophyte, those next two films represented the crass mortification of Rodriguez's talent. Critics praised his tongue-in-cheek treatment of B-movie material, as well as his emphatic editing of cracking skulls and ripping flesh. Yet the "excitement" of Rodriguez seemed to me silliness. In particular, From Dusk Till Dawn was childishly vulgar. Would Hitchcock, whose The Birds served as an inspiration, have resorted to such licentious schoolboy tricks? Hilarity, violence, and tragedy danced together without the slightest hint of menace.

I left both From Dusk Till Dawn and The Faculty uneasy about their savage decadence, and about Rodriguez himself. Was this young director, once so full of bravado and potential, completely hollow? Watching his horror fantasies is sort of like watching film criticism; his every move seems a comment on his favorite movies and a reworking of genre conventions. Christopher McQuarrie pulled off this kind of thing last year, bending the protagonists of The Way of the Gun into meditations on audience identification. Rodriguez, though, seems capable only of glib criticism. His referential patchworks may breathe deeply, but they exhale poison.

Spy Kids, which charts the comic-book adventures of two siblings as they plot a surreal rescue of their abducted parents, is a cheerful departure. Although it too exists as an allusive exercise -- watching it, I was reminded of Undercover Blues, Matilda, James Bond, several comic books, The Matrix, and even The Flight of the Navigator, among others -- it has a youthful exuberance missing from Rodriguez's work since El Mariachi. Perhaps his attention to superficial action and special effects reveals a lack of interest in character and narrative, but in creating this high-spirited "wholesome" entertainment, Rodriguez has still found his lightest, most agreeable touch. Is it coincidence that Antonio Banderas, as a superspy confounded by his patriarchal duties (he doesn't know whether to kick butt or set an example), here delivers one of his subtlest comic performances?

The movie's best performance, though, belongs to Alan Cumming as Fegan Floop, a kiddie-show host more interested in his ratings than in his plot to rule the world. As Cumming portrays him, Floop is barely a villain (the real heavy is Floop's minion, named Minion). He might kidnap spies and zap them into creepy characters for his television program, but Floop is threatless, childlike in his judgment; he never really grasps that his actions harm others.

Cumming invokes the elfin Paul Reubens, and Floop's island castle reflects the bizarre vagaries of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. It's not a stretch to assume that Floop is the character closest to Rodriguez himself. One senses that, like Floop, Rodriguez derives joy from his candy-colored production design. With its endlessly inventive costumes, contraptions, and thingamajigs -- all of which exude juvenile innocence -- Spy Kids' most obvious ascendant is probably Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but I'd go further and suggest that it occasionally achieves the sort of stream-of-consciousness extravagance of something like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Inside Floop's castle, Rodriguez aims for exaggerated, artificial visuals; the concept is Melies crossed with Play-Doh, and Rodriguez keeps springing goofy surprises, like a "virtual room" which cages people by altering their realities. It's a clever idea, because what Spy Kids gets right, despite its clunky pacing, is how children, in their undeveloped fantasies, often modify real life as a form of gee-whiz self-entertainment. Unlike Desperado or From Dusk Till Dawn, the flippant "violence" of Spy Kids is tied to a controlling -- and lively -- purpose, and is wholly appropriate.

When I first saw El Mariachi, I was convinced that Rodriguez was a director born to make pictures move, driven to create images despite ethnic and financial barriers. In fact, one could read El Mariachi's tale of a musician forced to sell out and kill just to survive as an allegory of a minority filmmaker trying to break into Hollywood with a miniscule budget but violent inspiration to spare. Likewise, the charming Spy Kids, in which children learn to use Bondesque gadgets, can be read as an allegory of a childlike moviemaker given all the coolest toys to play with, and finally knowing what to do with them.

Review published 04.05.2001.

For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.

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