Spy Kids

(Robert Rodriguez, USA, 2001)


The career of Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, 1995, From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996) is largely associated in the public’s mind with the Quentin Tarantino school of American independent cinema. Yet, as those who caught his splendid episode of Four Rooms (1995) will know, his skill as a filmmaker lends itself as much to childlike comedy as to slick violence.


After the disappointment of The Faculty (1998), Rodriguez hits his peak with Spy Kids. This project takes his best talents (the ability to direct children, a furiously kinetic editing style and a proud exhibition of Latin American pop culture) in the new direction of light-hearted fantasy.


Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) are the progeny of Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino). Carmen is the older, feistier one of the pair, while Juni is ruled by his fears. But these kids suddenly find themselves piloting fancy underwater vehicles and fighting off ugly baddies when their parents, formerly secret agents, are taken prisoner by an ascendant enemy, Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming).


Mixing a happy family portrait with a thrilling espionage caper is virtually a contradiction in terms, as Rodriguez is well aware. Gregorio’s and Ingrid’s once-brilliant careers as spies later converted into bedtime stories for their kids depended on their being free. Having a family spelt the end of that vocation.


Movies, especially screwball romantic comedies, have always equated rollicking love affairs with the absence of kids and domestic responsibility. So there is a note of sad, desperate nostalgia when Ingrid pleads with Gregorio to be a part of his new assignment. They are both itching to recapture the excitement of their youthful romance.


Rodriguez’s challenge is to turn this entire family, kids and all, into a fun-loving unit ready for any adventure without any nagging sense of contradiction of over-compensation. This he does with zest and ingenuity.


By the end, the message about the need for ‘blood ties’ closeness and loyalty manages to be completely convincing and quite touching.


You probably have to be a connoisseur of such underrated kids’ fare as Inspector Gadget (1999) and Mr Accident (2000) to appreciate the wit and energy of this film. Like those movies, Spy Kids is fast, colourful and cartoonish.


Rodriguez’s fond homages to The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953) in the hilarious snippets of Floop’s TV show, and his inspired collage of songs (by Danny Elfman, Los Lobos and himself), suggest he is ready to make a surrealist musical.


In the immediate wake of the New York September 11 crisis, however, even the most innocent entertainments seemed to contain gags that could chill the blood. After all the warm-hearted fun in Spy Kids, it was unavoidably disconcerting when George Clooney popped up in a closing cameo to inform these super children: “We have an urgent job for you in the Middle East ”.

Rodriguez: Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids 3D, Sin City


MORE pre-teen movies: BMX Bandits, Max Keeble's Big Move

© Adrian Martin September 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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