Before making a name for himself as a director of hard-edged action-oriented vehicles such as “El Mariachi,” “Desperado,” and “From Dusk till Dawn,” Robert Rodriguez made a number of award-winning short family comedies. With “Spy Kids,” loosely inspired by his raucous segment in the 1995 omnibus “Four Rooms,” Rodriguez cannily merges these two seemingly conflicting sensibilities, and the result is an all-ages-appropriate action film that parents won’t feel guilty over taking their kids to. Nor will anyone of any age feel the slightest bit guilty about enjoying this high-flying, fast-paced adventure.
Rodriguez regular Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino star as Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez, spies-turned-doting parents who find themselves thrust back into active duty when a number of agents from their old agency, the Oss, begin disappearing. Their return adventure proves brief, for they are quickly captured by the person responsible for the spy kidnappings, nefarious children’s TV icon Floop (Alan C*****g). With no one to turn to but themselves, it’s up to the Cortez children Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) to save them… and the whole world.
The exact nature of Floop’s evil plot is as over-the-top and preposterous as any villainous scheme in any spy caper, but Rodriguez and the cast approach the material in the right way: with tongue firmly in cheek, but also with the right dash of earnestness so as to not come off as smugly self-aware. Yet that is but one of the balancing acts that Rodriguez achieves in his script. The same plot twists that keep kids alert and involved will also amuse adults, particularly in how they so precisely arrive at the formula-set schedule. And this being a film not only targeted toward but inherently about family, Rodriguez is able to naturally embed a positive message that never feels forced nor preachy.
But living up to “James Bond for the family” description, the film’s script is ultimately just a practical line that strings together the various action sequences. Keeping in Rodriguez’s style, the set pieces are inventive and energetic, and the proactive involvement of children does lend them an added freshness. In an even newer spin for him, they are heavy on the high-tech visual effects, and all the wizardry is convincing, not to mention the action scenes are natural advancements to the story and are not mere razzle dazzle distractions.
Despite all the spy-jinks and impressive gadgetry, the cast prevents “Spy Kids” from ever becoming an empty exercise in eye candy, as is so often the case with kid-targeted movies these days. The entire ensemble of old pros play their designated roles well; standing out are C*****g, whose trademark impishness fits this role like a glove; and Danny Trejo, playing a nice guy for a change and pulling it off wonderfully.
All the supporting star power, however, does not steal the thunder from the naturally charming Vega and Sabara. In a welcome change from most child actors, they never resort to cloying “look how cute I am” mugging and line readings to endear themselves to the audience; in fact, it’s their spunk, strength, and steadfast refusal to act cute that makes them so likable-and so completely believable as action heroes. Thanks to the terrific efforts of these true casting finds, by the end credit roll even the biggest skeptics of the “kids as super spies” conceit will likely find themselves looking forward to the already-in-the-works-and completely justified-“Spy Kids” sequel.