When 15-year-old Cody Banks learns the CIA has chosen him for a top-secret spy mission, actor Frankie Muniz nails the facial expression of excitement. After all, what teen-ager wouldn’t be chomping at the bit for a gadget-filled mission with intensity and danger? Sorry, Frankie. This is no Spy Kids movie.
Were it not for Muniz’s instantly ingratiating personality, Agent Cody Banks would be a complete mess. Aside from a flashy prologue and finale, the movie is boring, filled with lame jokes, obvious stunt doubles and a soundtrack seemingly culled from the NOW CDs. It looks like something with a slightly higher budget than a film that would go direct to The Disney Channel.
As written by a committee of screenwriters (a 99.9 percent pure sign of trouble), Banks forgoes the introduction of cool gadgets for three jokes in 30 seconds involving canine bathroom breaks and human flatulence. It’s as though for every good idea the movie has, someone from that committee jumped in and said, “Yeah, but let’s put a fart joke right after that.”
Oddly enough, the film starts with promise, featuring Cody on a skateboard rescuing a toddler from a runaway car. His composure and skill seems a little much for a typical 15-year-old, but we soon learn he was part of the Agent Development Program. Instead of going to regular camp, Cody found himself learning karate moves and surveillance techniques. (One of the film’s rare subversive touches is the program’s training film, set to jaunty, 1950s-style music).
A smart kid, Cody is up on the news enough to ask whether his mission will take him to the Middle East (which it does not). But he’s horrendous with the ladies, which, unfortunately, leads to a mission where suave teenage moves are required. He must get close to Natalie Connors (Hilary Duff), the daughter of a scientist whose work in nanotechnology may be perilously close to falling into the wrong hands.
Muniz is the rare child actor who makes you like him without being aggressive about it, and for a time, Banks coasts on that along with his decent comic timing. But once they introduce Duff, whose empty-headed ditz is annoyingly reminiscent of the worst work Melanie Griffith has done, the movie grinds to a halt.
Fortunately, Natalie is kidnapped, which thankfully leads to a reduction in Duff’s screen time and an admittedly exciting action climax. But the kidnapping forces us to focus on how stupid the villains and, subsequently, the movie are.
Their ultimate water-poisoning plot is cribbed from Jackie Chan’s even-worse spy stinker The Tuxedo. And knowing the CIA has been keeping tabs on Natalie, wouldn’t the bad guys check her for a rather simplistically placed tracking device? The paint-by-numbers plotting makes the dopiest James Bond plots seem like storytelling masterpieces.
Despite his small frame, Muniz is just as convincing battling a bald, scarred henchman at the film’s conclusion as he is cracking wise. Somewhere hidden in the cracks of Agent Cody Banks is a really good idea. For the already-in-the-works sequel, Muniz just needs to put himself in the middle of some better collaborators.