Movie Review: Agent Cody Banks

Welcome to our second annual Spring Frankie Muniz Morally Problematic Spy Kids Rip-Off Movie, featuring hilarious hijinks offending each year against a different one of the Ten Commandments.

A Teenage Boy's Dream

Last year’s entry, Big Fat Liar, was brought to you by offenses against the Eighth Commandment, and by the color blue. Now there’s Agent Cody Banks, brought to you by offenses against the Ninth Commandment, and by the color of whatever va-va-voom jumpsuit Angie Harmon (Law & Order) happens to be wearing at the moment.

With Agent Cody Banks, the Spy Kids formula graduates to adolescence. Big Fat Liar and Spy Kids 2 had their faults, but at least they were as chastely innocent as the superior original Spy Kids film. In Liar, when Muniz went AWOL from his family and headed to Hollywood with girl-pal Amanda Bynes for a few weeks, it was all brother-sister innocent, even when they played dress-up for hours in a back-lot studio costume warehouse.

Now, though, the world of juvenile-spy fantasy hits the James Bond years. As a James Bond spoof, Agent Cody Banks (from MGM, the studio that owns the Bond franchise) does have its moments. In fact, it easily surpasses the Austin Powers flicks as the most systematic send-up of the various devices of the 007 movie formula, including:

• the stand-alone opening action scene (actually a pretty good sequence in its own right, involving a runaway car, a toddler, a skateboard, and an oncoming train);

• the headquarters weapons-lab scene in which the hero is told “Don’t touch anything” and gets his gadgets for the film, including the latest model BMW (in this case a BMW skateboard);

• the high-rolling party where the hero does reconaissance;

• the high-tech laboratory break-in;

• fight scenes involving the villain’s colorfully disfigured, formidable henchman;

• the ski-and-snowmobile chase scene;

• the villain’s lair, an enormous, isolated compound crawling with henchmen;

• the villain dying an ironic, vividly gruesome death;

• the explosive finale; and last but not least,

• the stereotyped closing scene in which the hero, enjoying a romantic moment alone with the heroine, ignores attempts by his superiors to contact him.

The big twist, of course, is that the hero isn’t suave, dashing James Bond, but a fifteen-year-old boy who arguably shouldn’t even be watching Bond films, let alone being the hero in one (though certainly Agent Cody Banks is no Bond film, even if it’s not family fare either).

The 007 mythos, with its gorgeous women, fast cars, high-tech gadgets, and spectacular stunts, holds an undeniable appeal for adolescent boys, but Agent Cody Banks cuts out the middleman: Here the hero isn’t someone you could grow up to be, but someone you could be already. Better yet, while you’re saving the world and getting the girl, the CIA will do your chores and your homework!

James Bond, He's Not

Cody Banks (Muniz), to all appearances an ordinary high-school student, has in fact been part of a top-secret CIA junior-agent training program for two years. He knows he’s hit the big time when he’s issued his very own full-size Bond Girl, Ronica Miles (Harmon), who has every attribute we expect in a Bond Girl except that her name does not seem to contain a double-entendre.

Clad in a candy-apple red leather jumpsuit, Ronica struts into the boy’s locker room at school, walks up to Cody, and begins reciting nursery rhymes to him — which, as means of delivering word of a secret assignment go, is less covert than one of those self-destructing audiocassettes, but more guaranteed to get the subject’s attention. Cody’s half-naked peers crowd around leering at Ronica and making rude remarks, prompting her to yank a towel off of one and then use it to towel-whip another.

Cody gets luckier — not as lucky as Bond would get, to be sure, but lucky enough to spar with her in one of those coed training matches that always seems to end with the combatants rolling around on top of one another. Ronica insists that she’s not Cody’s partner but his “handler” — “like animals at the zoo,” she helpfully clarifies, as if to emphasize that there’s no double entendre here, either.

Besides Harmon, the film provides Muniz with another, more age-appropriate and realistic female co-star, 15-year-old Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire). And here comes the movie’s other major twist on the 007 formula: Banks, Cody Banks, is tongue-tied in the presence of pretty girls. Fantasy Bond women are another story — he can relate to them as one spy to another — but your garden-variety high-school pretty girl short-circuits his brain entirely. His best attempt at a line: “Are…are those books? I love books.”

Naturally, Cody’s assignment requires him to get close to Natalie (Duff), the teenaged daughter of a scientist who’s an expert in nanotechnology. When the gap in Cody’s espionage and social skills comes out, Cody’s CIA boss (a weirdly mugging Keith David) is aghast: “We spent ten million dollars training this kid, and we did not teach him how to talk to women?!”

On the other hand, given the CIA’s idea of remedial social-skills coaching as imagined in this movie — which involves such techniques as an earnest, geeky female scientist discussing the mating rituals of the hyena, comic Darrell Hammond lecturing on an anatomical model with detachable parts, and a holographic vamp draping herself across a table and coming on to Cody — perhaps it’s just as well that Cody’s previous spy schooling didn’t involve Don-Juan training. He might have been scarred for life.

Parents: Just Say No!

The movie does have some funny bits, such as Hammond’s awkward attempts at teen slang while briefing Cody on his new gadgets, and Ronica’s explanation about how she tracked down Cody when we went after the bad guys on his own (“You think the CIA doesn’t have LoJack on its stuff?”). There’s also some weak material, and of course the inevitable flatulence and excrement humor to remind us that we’re watching a Family Film. But by the time 15-year-old Natalie cheerfully does something that condemns one of the bad guys to a gruesome death, the movie’s credentials as a family film are pretty much shot.

Parents who see the movie may appreciate a special feature on a pair of X-ray specs Cody gets from the CIA, which he uses to peek at Ronica and get a more intimate look at some pretty girls at a party. (At least the X-ray view isn’t X-rated; the glasses discreetly don’t see through lingerie.) In a nearby van, a couple of male agents monitor whatever Cody sees, leering at the see-through images of the girls — until Ronica activates the “Parental Control” feature, pixellating the critical areas.

It’s a funny payoff to an unnecessarily risqué gag. Agent Cody Banks, like Kangaroo Jack earlier this year, is a PG-13 movie in PG clothing; and in a movie theater, needless to say, there is no parental-control feature. Parents who want to exercise control over what their kids see have their work cut out for them.

Two years ago Spy Kids reminded us that the adventure of raising a family is a vital mission fraught with hazards. It’s because of movies like Agent Cody Banks — and the MPAA’s increasingly erratic ratings assignments — that a family outing to the movies can be one of those hazards.

* * *

2003, MGM. Directed by Harald Zwart. Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff, Angie Harmon, Keith David, Cynthia Stevenson, Arnold Vosloo, Darrell Hammond.

MPAA: PG

US Conference of Catholic Bishops: Not yet rated

Mild menace and occasional stylized violence; some sexually themed humor and situations; a non-gory depiction of a gruesome science-fiction death.

Overall Recommendability: C- (Between Your Call and Discouraged)

Artistic & Entertainment Value: 2 1/2 stars (out of four) – Between mediocre and well-made

Moral and Spiritual Value: Problematic

Appropriate Audience: Teens & up

For more information on this movie's ratings, visit the Decent Films Guide at the link below.

Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.

(c) 2003 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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