Friday 12 August 2011

From the archive: "Spy Kids"

If you're likely to remember anything about the notorious 1995 flop Four Rooms, it would be the segment directed by Robert Rodriguez in which two small children, left to their own devices by absent patriarch Antonio Banderas, went about wrecking a hotel suite. The latest Rodriguez project, Spy Kids, might have been pitched along the lines of what could happen if those same children had been let out to wreak havoc in the wider world, in order to bring their problems to the attention of the parents who have to go out on them every night.

Banderas is cast again, this time in the role of an ex-spy settling down to domesticity with wife Carla Gugino and their two pre-teen offspring. Both Banderas and Gugino were on active service - tailing each other - until they fell in love; Banderas used to have a rakish moustache, but now wears a cardigan and spectacles. The kids are bedwetters and truants with no real friends to speak of, but they get the chance to play hero when Mom and Pop are captured by nefarious kids' TV presenter Floop (Alan Cumming), whose scientist Minion (Tony Shalhoub) has plans on taking over the world through franchised rubber dolls and a whole generation of brainwashed tweenies.

Shot in Latin America - which makes a change - the story is a playful spin on exploitation and globalisation. The action is a mix of zippy gadgets and fart gags, all the things eleven-year-olds love, but there's regular funny business, too (the kids have been raised to apologise to the adults they take out with their jet-packs). With all the running around - Floop's palace is a lavishly designed fairground playhouse - the film naturally tires itself out towards the end in pursuit of more or less familiar spy-thriller gambits, but Spy Kids nevertheless offers many more pleasures than those other half-term entertainments around at the moment.

Like Steven Soderbergh, Rodriguez is now so well-connected in the movie business that he can get away with casting major movie stars in very minor roles, and his supporting cast really do come through for him here: Cheech Marin as the world's least likely babysitter, Robert Patrick as an underwritten corporate boss with an unpronounceable name, plus Teri Hatcher in an obvious bald cap and - a special treat, this, for fans of grizzled character actors - Danny Trejo as Banderas's best man, cut off from the family after being accused of selling arms to Floop.

With the Bond franchise on its last legs because its lead character simply looks silly growing old but refusing to settle down, and with Spy Kids' impressive box-office success on both sides of the Atlantic, this could be the first of many escapades; Rodriguez, who turned El Mariachi into Desperado and oversaw the production of (to date) three From Dusk Till Dawn movies, has a way with spin-offs, and Banderas and Gugino, though effectively playing second-fiddle to two actors who've yet to reach puberty, work up the possibility of future, Thin Man-like pairings. It could still come to pass that Minion, with his tight white suit and ever-expanding name, becomes the Dr. Evil of choice for the under-12 brigade.

(February 2001)

Spy Kids screens on 5* tomorrow at 4.20pm, and at 1pm on Sunday.

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