Dr. Yes

The gorgeous excess of Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids sets the right tone for its surreal fantasy

As its title suggests, Spy Kids is an action fantasy aimed primarily at the preteen/early-teen audience. For all its thrills -- and it has plenty -- it's strictly a PG film. That fact is all the more surprising when one considers its source: Robert Rodriguez, master of bloody gunplay and monster films that sometimes even push the boundaries of an R rating.

Rodriguez made his reputation with the extraordinary, ultralow-budget actioner El Mariachi in 1992 (reportedly -- and unbelievably -- shot for $7000). He followed it up with a confused but thrilling sequel/remake, Desperado (1995), with at least a thousand times larger budget and Antonio Banderas to boot. His subsequent features -- From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and The Faculty (1998) -- were action-horror and straight-out horror respectively. Judging by this filmography, one might safely say that Rodriguez has used more stage blood and exploding squibs per film than any director except John Woo -- maybe more than anyone since Herschell Gordon Lewis in his '60s heyday as the king of gore-sploitation.

His ketchup-soaked average gets severely compromised with Spy Kids, which has very little shooting and altogether no blood. It seems that, at the grand old age of 32, Rodriguez has decided to make a movie that even his own preadolescent kids could watch.

Spies like us: Carla Gugino (clockwise from top left), Antonio Banderas, Alexa Vega, and Daryl Sabara
Spies like us: Carla Gugino (clockwise from top left), Antonio Banderas, Alexa Vega, and Daryl Sabara

While the chronologically more advanced Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino get top billing for their roles, the real protagonists here are the Cortez siblings -- 12-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega) and 8-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara) -- who live in a high-tech house on a cliff, together with their seemingly staid parents, Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid (Gugino). The kids love to hear their mother tell their favorite bedtime story -- about two spies from different countries who fall in love and get married.

The story is, of course, autobiographical, the joke being that the kids are too levelheaded to believe it, and only the parents know that this outrageous fairy tale is true. Gregorio and Ingrid have long since retired, for the sake of family, and set themselves up as private security consultants, but their peace is shattered when they get an urgent call from former boss Devlin (a major star in a tiny surprise cameo). Various top agents are disappearing, and only the Cortezes are good enough to save them.

They leave the kids in the care of wacky old Uncle Felix (Cheech Marin), who isn't really their uncle but an old comrade in arms. When things predictably go awry, Mom and Dad Cortez are captured, and it's up to the kids to save them.

Rodriguez has a fine old time here: If anything he seems more at home with Spy Kids' wild, unrestrained fantasy than he did with the more conventional The Faculty. This shouldn't be altogether surprising: He handled somewhat similar subject matter in his segment (also featuring Banderas) of the 1995 compilation film Four Rooms, stealing the film from co-contributors Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Rockwell, and Alison Anders.

But even on a deeper level, Spy Kids feels like Rodriguez through and through. If El Mariachi showed a young filmmaker brilliantly struggling against the bounds of a tiny budget, Desperado allowed that same talent to play with more money. And what Rodriguez did was push away from realism, into the realm of the fantastic. The action scenes in Desperado, while clearly inspired by Woo, were even more dreamlike; in fact the disparity between the stylization of these scenes and the relatively realistic screenplay was perceived by many as a failing.

That Rodriguez is basically a fantasist at heart became clearer with From Dusk to Dawn -- in which the entire gimmick was to have the realism of a gritty crime story suddenly be shattered by incongruous supernatural elements. The second half of the story, as the main characters find themselves in a hellish bar fending off scores of ravenous vampires, allowed Rodriguez to indulge his passion for the surreal further.

With Spy Kids he gets to go all the way into fantasy, even while softening his usual visceral direction for his main intended audience. The wild production design immediately invokes comparison to Tim Burton, but the big blobs of garish primary colors also suggest that Rodriguez has watched not only Pee-wee's Playhouse, but earlier children's stuff like Dr. Seuss' 1953 The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. and the weird, late-'60s psychedelia of such Sid and Marty Krofft shows as H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos.

Surrounded by so much gorgeous excess, the actors can chew all the scenery they want. Cut loose from dramatic reality, they seem to be having just as much fun as the audience. The suddenly ubiquitous Alan Cumming -- who has been able to brighten everything he has appeared in except the irredeemable Company Man -- is alternately scary and sympathetic as Floop, the Pee-wee-esque host of a kids' show, who is behind much of the villainy. Directors Mike Judge (King of the Hill, Office Space) and Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) pop in for cameos. But among the rest of the cast -- including Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, and Tony Shalhoub -- special mention must be made of Danny Trejo. Trejo -- whose scarred, chiseled face and gruff voice have made him a familiar heavy throughout the '90s -- gets to play sentimental, and it's a sight to see.

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