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Agent Cody Banks

Like a real spy, only smaller.

Too bad Spy Kids already took that tagline. But what that film lacked in the size of its leads, it made up for with big imagination. MGM's foray into young spy territory, Agent Cody Banks, chooses instead to take the slavish homage route. What it lacks in imagination, it lacks in originality and excitement.

Strictly following the Bond formula, the movie is trapped. Quite simply, Bond keeps topping itself, or at least trying, while Banks can only play out the clichés in miniature.

Some of it does work, which keeps fooling the audience into thinking they're watching a good movie instead of an overworked Nickelodeon pilot.

Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz) lives in Seattle, and one morning while skateboarding to school, he witnesses a toddler in a runaway car. This incident leads into a pretty well-done opening stunt, and Banks does his good deed then skates away anonymously. As far as setting the guy up as a hero, it works.

Cut to an exotic locale, because this is what must be done. In Hong Kong, a scientist has been tricked into working for E.R.I.S., a deadly criminal cartel led by the ominous Brinkman (Ian McShane).

E.R.I.S. has a scheme for turning Dr. Connors' lifework in nanotechnology into something terribly, terribly evil - obvious to everyone, of course, but Connors. A perfect example of the oblivious scientist, the presence of Arnold Vosloo doesn't tip Connors off that he's fallen in with the wrong crowd.

Luckily for the film's budget, Connors actually keeps his lab in Seattle, so one establishing shot pretty much knocks "exotic locale" off the Bond checklist.

He also has a daughter, the winsome Natalie, played by Hilary Duff. At her appearance, adolescent boys hoot and drool, and thus she plays a pivotal role in garnering an audience. (Has it come to this? Is it just about the babes? Is this really a naïve question?)

It turns out that Cody is part of the C.I.A.'s young agent training program, waiting for an assignment. Knowing that E.R.I.S. has something planned for Connors, the CIA activates Cody to seduce Natalie and find out just what the scheme is.

But since the leads are fifteen, perhaps seduce is really the wrong word. Instead, Cody has to get Natalie to wear his ring. In the only swerve from spy film convention (except Casino Royale), Cody has no skills with women, and in fact often comes across to them as being "…in special ed." (The film's joke twice. Not mine.)

Matched with an extremely hot handler, Veronica Miles (Angie Harmon), Cody tries to work past his handicap, which is really only a handicap for a little while.

The further the film progresses, the chintzier it becomes, until the last act becomes a cheap parody of the Austin Powers films, but on a kid's level. Why does it consistently fail? Because every set piece is small, and the film fails to build on anything.

With a huge headquarters in Hong Kong, for example, why would E.R.I.S. put its actual secret lair in Washington state, especially when not a single villain in this film is American? And though the film sets up a "hidden" cool spy car, when we finally see it, it's boxy, driven for one scene, and then never actually does anything. Oh, how this film taunts us.

There's a lot of wasted potential here. Director Harald Zwart stages the action sequences fairly competently, with some decent stuntwork and no obvious replacement of Muniz. Though his storytelling is weak, at least Zwart puts Kaos' Ballistic to shame.

And any healthy teen boy has fantasies about being Bond. The problem is that to make it a palatable teen film (read: one adults approve of), all the things that kids really fantasize about you can't show, though Zwart does try to sneak a couple of x-ray sunglasses gags past. So instead of sex, you get ice cream. Literally.

It's also kind of difficult to see the loose morality of Bond work on an adolescent level. These kids don't have a license to kill, at least not explicitly so, and yet the only on-screen deaths are caused by them, not the villains. There's something very very skewed there.

However, the actors all have a fair amount of charisma. As mentioned above, Duff doesn't have to do much more than heave her chest and show her dimples. But Muniz shows some subtle chops - as Banks, he has a different physical stance than as Malcolm on TV. You could believe him as an action star in training, if he didn't still look vaguely hobbit-like.

In supporting roles, it gets painful, but only because they're wasted. SNL's Darrell Hammond injects a lot of humor into the Q role. Keith David snarls and smirks as the CIA chief.

But watching McShane in this is like watching Michael Caine in A Muppet Christmas Carol. It's tragic that Caine will never get to play Scrooge in a good version of the story, and the same goes for McShane here. As he flounces around dressed like Dr. No, he brings quiet menace that really belongs in a real Bond film. And now it can't.

(A side kvetch here: McShane has the right outfits, the right kind of overblown lair, and even the right kind of plan for world domination - but his sidekick (Vosloo) dresses in cheap track suits?)

For those over 18, Harmon definitely commands the screen. If not for her whiskey voice, I'd say to Warner look no further for your Wonder Woman.

Kids are still probably going to eat this up. But guys, you should know better.

What's It Worth? $4.50

Obsessive Fanboy Connection: Angie Harmon voices Commisioner Barbara Gordon in Batman Beyond, and Keith David voices Spawn in the animated series.

Derek McCaw

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