Originally created 03/14/03

At the Movies: 'Agent Cody Banks'

The James Bond formula has always been juvenile, so there aren't any points to be won for tossing it indifferently into a teen milieu.

"Agent Cody Banks" feels particularly lame after "Austin Powers," "Spy Kids" and their numerous unnecessary sequels. Among the recent Bond parody-homages, only the execrable "XXX" ranks lower.

It's hard to imagine that boys of, say, 8 and up wouldn't enjoy one of the old Sean Connery Bond films more than this movie, which heaves into the spindly arms of Frankie Muniz (of "Malcolm in the Middle") the requisite gadgets and babes.

"Cody" director Harald Zwart and his team of screenwriters have obviously studied the Bond formula, but in their hands it's dead weight. It's as if they made the movie with checklist in hand:

- The opening action sequence that has nothing to do with the plot.

- The villain, bent on the idea of using an unknown technology to destroy the world.

- His henchman, distinguished by scars, physique and bad hair.

- The faceoff between the hero and the henchman at the roulette table.

- The dueling hotties, one icy female spy and one perky damsel-in-distress.

- The action sequences inside the villain's secret lairs, one underground and one mountainside.

- The ending in which our hero turns off his spy communicator to kiss the girl.

Far from a suave spy, Muniz makes everything seem stressful. He can be a grating presence on "Malcolm," too, but it's not up to him to carry that show's talented ensemble.

Here, he's front and center for nearly two hours, creating chemistry-free zones with romantic interest Hilary Duff and Angie Harmon as his CIA handler.

The gag is that 15-year-old Cody, who was recruited by the CIA as part of a pilot program to train young agents, gets the one assignment he can't handle: winning a girl. While he's been trained with fighting and driving skills that should make him the coolest kid in school, he remains painfully inarticulate in front of the opposite sex.

His target is Natalie Connors (Duff, star of the Disney Channel's "Lizzie McGuire"), whose benevolent scientist dad (Martin Donovan) has been suckered into facilitating the world-domination scheme of Brinkman (Ian McShane) and his henchman Molay (Arnold Vosloo). If Cody gets close to her, he can get close to the bad guys; you know the drill.

The delightful "Spy Kids" casts a long shadow over this movie, because not only did the kids have great reserves of charm, you could feel the joy with which Robert Rodriguez celebrated and subverted spy-thriller conventions. Plus, through Rodriguez's skillful editing and seamlessly integrated special effects, he managed to make a movie that was exciting and tension-filled but not violent.

No such luck for the abrasive, technically inept "Agent Cody Banks," which treats us to the unpleasant spectacle of cute Natalie killing a man with flesh-eating microscopic robots.

Another lowlight is a driving lesson taught to Cody and Natalie by Mr. Yip (Chang Tseng), a spittle-spewing, English language-butchering Asian stereotype. He yells at Natalie for her bad driving, so Cody gets revenge by executing a few CIA-taught driving maneuvers that cause Mr. Yip to vomit.

Not that "Agent Cody Banks" invites much consideration of larger themes or trends, but Cody does seem, along with Harry Potter, to represent a shift in the way movie heroes are pitched to kids.

They used to be larger than life; now they're just like you. While it may be good for everybody's self-esteem, turning heroes into nerds may also deny kids the escapism that movies have always provided. With fantasy like this, who needs reality?

"Agent Cody Banks," an MGM release, is rated PG for action violence, mild language and some sensual content. Running time: 110 min. One and a half stars out of four.


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