Friday, January 18, 2019
Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2001)
To some people in 2001, the idea of Robert Rodriguez directing a children's movie probably seemed incredibly bizarre. Would the director of a hyper-violent shoot-em-up like “Desperado” or a flesh-and-blood filled adventure like “From Dusk Till Dawn” really be able to tone it down for kids? Of course, those that followed Rodriguez' career realized he has always had an adolescent sensibility. Rambunctious siblings featured prominently in his early short “Bedhead” as well as his “Four Rooms” segment. (Which would've been kid friendly, were it not for the profanity, stripper, and dead hooker.) Rodrigeuz would certainly prove anyone who doubted his ability to make a kid's movie wrong. “Spy Kids” would become a surprise hit in 2001, out-grossing any of the director's previous films and remains among his most popular features.
Carmen and Juni Cortez think their parents are boring. Though they live in a large home and are regaled with spy themed stories, the bickering siblings think nothing of this. Their parents worry about Carmen skipping school and Juni's lack of friends. They are also actual spies. When federal agents begin to disappear, mom and dad investigate. They are soon captured by the villain – a demented children's show host who is designing weapons for criminal elements – which endangers Carmen and Juni. Soon, the two kids have to teach themselves the tricks of their parents' trade, if they hope to rescue mom and dad and save the day.
By moving into the kid's movie genre, Robert Rodriguez is given an excuse to totally free up his zany imagination. It's no wonder why “Spy Kids” appeal so much to actual children, as the movie has a child-like creativity and energy. There are a number of imaginative tricks up the movie's sleeve. Such as an amusing gag involving puzzle piece-shaped tiles falling away from a floor. Or the production design of the villain's lair, which is colorful and fittingly warped. There's a small section of the film set in a room where the villain can make anything he images into reality, another sign of the movie's barely contained creativity. And the zaniness is equally evident, such as when a playground roundabout spins at super speed or a rocket pack assisted chase scene all throughout a city.
In fact, it's fair to say “Spy Kids” maybe frees Rodriguez' cartoony tendencies a little too much. The direction is hammier than ever before. More than once, characters flip through the air in slow motion, a deeply unconvincing effect. Upon release, “Spy Kids” was celebrated by Roger Ebert and other critics for not relying on crude toilet humor, like many kid's movies. Which is a little weird, because “Spy Kids” does feature some gross-out humor. Such as an utterly gratuitous poop joke or a random gag about pig intestines. There are other hallmarks of overactive children's entertainment here, like some product placement from McDonald's. Knowing what we do about Rodriguez, it's easy to assume these more childish moments were totally his ideas.
Another thing “Spy Kids” has in common with typical kid's media is a cheesy moral. Naturally, this is a film about the value of family. Carmen and Juni bicker with each other in the beginning, as siblings are prone to do. Carmen makes fun of her brother's perceived wimpiness, while Juni threatens to reveal his sister's embarrassing secret. As you'd expect, the two learn how much they really care about each other before the end. Interestingly, for a movie technically about spies, “Spy Kids” ties this theme in with one about not keeping secrets. Mom and dad stop lying to each other, kids stop lying to their parents. The whole Cortez family exits the movie closer, with a better understanding of one another.
In his horror films, Robert Rodriguez has shown a tendency towards mutated bodies and gross deformities. Surprisingly, this trademark makes an unexpected appearance in “Spy Kids.” The film's primary villain, at least at first, is sinister children's show host Fegan Floop. Using his surreal technology, he can shift and bend the human body into whatever shape he desires. He uses this power to mutate the captured government agents into utterly grotesque monsters. While most of “Spy Kids'” effects are digital, Floop's freaks are created with fantastically weird practical effects. These beings look exactly like what they are: Mounds of twisted flesh, their agony clear in their still very human eyes. I'm surprised something this weird and creepy made it into an otherwise light and fluffy kid's flick.
Floop is an interesting villain for another reason. At the beginning of the film, Juni is enamored of Floop. He watches the show, collects the toys, and feels more of a kinship with Floop than any kid his own age. Floop being a madman, brutally deforming captured enemies for his own twisted pleasure, could've been a commentary on children's entertainment. How programs look to entertain kids but are actually out to corrupt their minds by selling them shit. Disappointingly, “Spy Kids” backpedals from this idea in its second half. Floop is revealed as a largely harmless eccentric, not bad but simply led astray. His main henchman assumes the role of primary villain from that point. Then again, I guess a movie with a Happy Meal tie-in probably wouldn't be the best place to make a point about the effects of capitalism on kids.
Yet even in his goofy kid's movie, Rodriguez brings along plenty of his favorite actors. Antonio Banderas plays Gregorio, the dad. Banderas gets to have it both ways here, getting laughs as an ordinary suburban dad while also getting to play a dashing super-spy. Sometimes in the same scene. Carla Gugino is warm, funny, and adventurous as Ingrid, the mom. Though it keeps everything PG-rated, there's no denial of the simmering sexual chemistry the Cortez' parents have. Rodrigeuz even sneaks in small parts for Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo, whose antics are usually not kid appropriate. Yet Marin is fittingly funny and sweet in his brief part, while Trejo's gruffness is exploited for well-timed comedic effect.
The more villainous roles are given to recognizable faces as well. Alan Cumming is definitely well cast as the amoral man-child that is Fegan Floop. When he has to play the same part for sympathy, Cumming is clearly not as invested. Yet another reason the movie should've kept him as the main adversary. Yet it is fun to see Tony Shalhoub squeeze his typically neurotic acting style into the role of a Bondian supervillain. Robert Patrick, making his third appearance in a Rodriguez-directed or adjacent project, also has his hard-ass tendencies utilized for comedy here. Teri Hatcher also gets to ham it up as another evil hench-person. Also, watch out for a Hollywood superstar making a cute, late-in-the-film cameo.