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'Spy Kids': Secret-Agent Mom and Dad

Surprised offspring come to the rescue in a clever family film. Bring on the sequel.


Anyone who's been a child on the verge of adolescence can empathize with 12-year-old Carmen Cortez (Alexa Vega) when, awash in disbelief, she manages to gasp, "My parents can't be spies. They're not cool enough."

Cool or not, the mother and father of Carmen and her 8-year-old brother, Juni (Daryl Sabara), are definitely secret agents. In fact, the senior Cortezes, Gregorio (a self-deprecating Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino) were rivals at the peak of their profession when they married, retired and traded active espionage for parenthood or, in Ingrid's words, "exchanged one life of adventure for another."

This has all been kept secret, until now. For it is the notion of Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" that these veteran espionage operatives, rusty after nine years as desk-bound consultants-parents, are captured on a crucial new mission and have to depend for their lives, not to mention the fate of the free world, on the abilities of their plucky but untrained offspring.

This is a very engaging premise, and it's been made into an equally winning family film that's clever in the best kind of offhanded way. Lively, imaginative, with a playful sense of humor, "Spy Kids" is an adventure fantasy for kids that their parents will relish almost as much.

While the possessory credit has lately been the subject of understandable debate, there's little doubt that this is a case where the "a film by" line would have some meaning. Rodriguez not only wrote, directed and co-produced "Spy Kids," he was also the editor and camera operator, shares credit as visual-effects supervisor, rerecording mixer and music composer and even reportedly flew to Chile to personally shoot needed background footage. Does the man never sleep?

Though working like this is something of a Rodriguez trademark, the blood-and-guts nature of previous credits, from his debut "El Mariachi" through "Desperado," "From Dusk Till Dawn" and "The Faculty," make him not the most obvious choice for a family venture.

But, if "Spy Kids" is any indicator, Rodriguez is also something of a big kid at heart, a fantasizer who thought up many of the film's genial collection of gizmos and gadgets, like the Super Guppy underwater escape vehicle and Electroshock Gumballs. And, as the father of three kids, the filmmaker also has a good sense of the mechanics of sibling bickering that is put to use here.


Also, there are some similarities between this and Rodriguez's earlier films. "Spy Kids" has his trademark high spirits and gift for keeping things moving. And the filmmaker's celebrated ability to squeeze a dollar ("El Mariachi" was reportedly made for $7,000) has served him well in what looks like made-on-a-budget special effects whose bargain sensibility actually adds to the picture's old-fashioned charm.

One of the conceits of "Spy Kids" is that nemesis Fegan Floop (the versatile Alan Cumming), aided by his well-named assistant, Minion (Tony Shalhoub), divides his time between the No. 2-rated kids show "Floop's Fooglies" and making bad things for the evil Mr. Lisp (Robert Patrick).

These include a scary army of strong and sneaky robot children who can be made to look like the offspring of the world's leaders, and the much less successful--but much more amusing--Thumb-Thumbs, creatures that are about as effective as you'd imagine something with thumbs for arms, legs and a head would be.

Again, not making a big deal about it, "Spy Kids" layers in messages about the importance of family, belief in yourself and looking after your younger siblings. Also, without calling attention to itself, the film creates an all-Latino family of heroes, throws in music by Los Lobos and visual references to the great Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.

Producer Elizabeth Avellan, who is married to Rodriguez, says one of the impetuses for "Spy Kids" was to finally have "a movie we can proudly show to our own children," and this the filmmakers have cheerfully done.

If James Bond could inspire dozens of sequels, surely there ought to be at least one in the works for this intrepid gang.

* MPAA rating: PG for action sequences. Times guidelines: The action is fast-paced but not violent, although it may be too frenetic for the very young.

'Spy Kids'

Antonio Banderas: Gregorio Cortez

Carla Gugino: Ingrid Cortez

Alexa Vega: Carmen Cortez

Daryl Sabara: Juni Cortez

Alan Cumming: Fegan Floop

Tony Shalhoub: Alexander Minion

Released by Dimension Films. Director Robert Rodriguez. Producers Elizabeth Avellan, Robert Rodriguez. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Cary Granat. Screenplay Robert Rodriguez. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Editor Robert Rodriguez. Costumes Deborah Everton. Music Danny Elfman, Gavin Greenaway and Heitor Pereira, John Debney, Robert Rodriguez, Los Lobos. Production design Cary White. Art director Ed Vega. Set decorator Jeanette Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

In general release.

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