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, which is all the more surprising when you consider 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. From this filmography it's safe to say 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 Sixties heyday as the king of gore-sploitation.
This 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.
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While the chronologically more advanced Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino get top billing, the real protagonists here are the Cortez siblings -- twelve-year-old Carmen (Alexa Vega) and eight-year-old Juni (Daryl Sabara) -- who live in a high-tech house on a cliff with their seemingly staid parents, Gregorio (Banderas) and Ingrid (Gugino). The kids love to hear Ingrid 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 actually 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). It seems 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, the Cortezes are captured, and it becomes clear that it's up to the kids to save Mom and Dad.
Rodriguez has a fine old time here: If anything he seems more at home with Spy Kids's 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 -- a film whose 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 further indulge his passion for the surreal.
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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 older children's stuff like Dr. Seuss's 1953 The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. and the weird late-Sixties psychedelia of Sid and Marty Krofft shows such as H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos.
Surrounded by so much gorgeous excess, the actors can chew as much scenery as 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's in except the irredeemable Company Man -- is alternately scary and sympathetic as Floop, the Pee-wee-esque kids' show host 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 -- 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 Nineties -- gets to play sentimental, and it's a sight to see.
Spy Kids also passes the most important test for children's films: It's funny and exciting on enough levels that adults are likely to enjoy it just as much as the rug rats they find themselves forced to chaperone. Hell, even adults who don't have kids should have a jolly time at this thoroughly entertaining movie.