"My parents can't be spies, they're not cool enough!" exclaims a character in the latest family-oriented Hollywood hit, "Spy Kids." But not only are Carmen Cortez's parents cool beyond her wildest expectations, so is this movie-- which is not only terrifically entertaining, but has a great message, as well.
"Spy Kids" also has a surprising lineage-- a writer/director/producer with a cult following that some might consider TOO cool to even do a kids movie.
Robert Rodriguez was labeled the next edgy wunderkind director when his low budget thriller "El Mariachi" garnered rave reviews after supposedly being shot on a $7,000 budget. Even after news leaked out that after post production the movie was more in the hundred grand range, Rodriguez was still hailed as the next big thing, with the best low budget movie of its type since "Mad Max" introduced director George Miller and star Mel Gibson to the public.
But Rodriguez was not nearly so successful when given real money to spend. His movies, "From Dusk Til Dawn" and "Desperado" (a remake of "El Mariachi" that made every mistake in excess that the first movie avoided through budgetary necessity) were bloody messes. It began to look as though Rodriguez could not handle freedom creatively.
That's not as uncommon as you might think. For all the big speeches about Artistic Freedom, operating within restraints is often good for creativity. J. Lee Thompson, who made the great thrillers "The Guns of Navarone" and "Cape Fear," never made a good movie again once the era of censorship ended. John Coltrane sought to break the bonds of standard jazz, and not only ruined his own music; but his honking and wheezing (along with the Emperor's New Clothes cheering section of pretentious critics) helped to sink real jazz in the public mind for a quarter century.
Now, operating under the restraints of making a movie for kids, Rodriguez has made his best Hollywood movie so far-- and the best non-animated kid flick in some time.
Antonio Bandares (who ALSO seems to do his best work in movies appropriate for family viewing like "The Mask of Zorro") and Carla Gugino star as Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, retired spies who gave up saving the world to raise a family. Now they just work as "consultants."
But when agents from a project Gregorio had been working on begin to disappear, they are called on for one last mission-- unfortunately, that is exactly what the bad guys were hoping for, and they are immediately captured. Their nemesis is a Pee Wee Herman-like children's TV host called Fagan Floop (Alan Cummings) and his scheming sidekick, the evil Minion (Tony Shaloub). Floop and his Minion are building robot children who look like the kids of world leaders, in a bid for world domination.
It is up to the Cortez's children, the slightly snotty and athletic Carman, (Alexa Vega) and her little brother, the bumbling, but smarter than he seems Juni (Daryl Sabara) to show they are indeed their parents' children, and save the day.
With a playful sense, lots of satirical jabs at everything from James Bond to "The Avengers," a lightning fast pace, and completely endearing performances from everyone involved, "Spy Kids" is a hour and twenty minutes of pure fun. The gadgets look like something from Saturday morning television, and so do the garish colors, but that's part of what Rodriguez is sending up here, and it sets the mood perfectly.
"Spy Kids" is definitely a hoot, but there are some deeper things at work here, too. "Spy Kids" is multicultural in the BEST sense of the word. The Latin characters fit in naturally with America without a big deal being made of it-- other than a few jokey asides-- and that makes the point far better than a hundred Disney cartoon tolerance speeches.
This is also an aggressively pro-family movie, almost to the point of preachiness. The Cortez kids learn that their parents aren't "just" parents, but had lives, ambitions, romance and yes, were VERY cool in their younger days-- and that hasn't all faded away, either. The importance of intact and loyal families has rarely been as appealingly illustrated as in "Spy Kids"-- or, at least, not in a manner that was nearly this much of a blast for all ages.