For the past few years, the C.I.A. have been running a covert programme, in the guise of a summer camp, training little kids as secret agents. One such kid is fifteen year old Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz), now partnered with foxy field agent Ronica Myles (Angie Harmon), who is less than happy with what she considers a glorified babysitting job. His task is to get close to high school princess Natalie Connors (Hilary Duff), whose scientist father Dr. Connors (Martin Donovan) has perfected a series of microscopic nanobots able to destroy any carbon or silicone based substance. Evil mastermind Dr. Brinkman (Ian McShane) and his henchman Francois Molay (Arnold Vosloo) plan to use them for evil ends. An expert in martial arts and outfitted with all the high-tech gadgets at the C.I.A.’s disposal, Cody has just one problem: he can’t talk to girls.
While not as inventive as the Spy Kids movies, Agent Cody Banks has surprisingly cool stunts, personable leads and a winning sense of fun going for it. The concept is killer when you think about its target audience: contrasting the painful, awkwardness of adolescence with Cody’s need to be a super-suave, James Bond type. As if high school kids didn’t have enough pressure to cope with. However, the film is driven by a need to rush to the next cool gadget or daredevil stunt and consequently squanders some of the comic potential. The core subplot involving Cody’s need to prove himself mature and capable to cut it in the spy world and high school is rendered too slight.
The script was co-written by Ashley Miller and the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, better known for their run of biopics including Ed Wood (1994) and The People versus Larry Flint (1998), although they first hit big with the Problem Child movies. Thankfully, this is far better than that nightmare franchise and cleverly taps the fantasies and anxieties of your average teenage boy. Who wouldn’t want a crack C.I.A. team to tidy their room or perform other household chores, while their zipping around in a red sports car with a pretty blonde? Or which among them could honestly say they wouldn’t get tongue-tied at a lycra-clad Angie Harmon or use their x-ray specs to glimpse girls’ underwear? Such foibles are presented with a degree of self-chastising embarrassment that keeps Cody awkward and vulnerable instead of precocious and crass.
Malcolm in the Middle star Frankie Muniz is an engaging young hero and interacts nicely with leading ladies Hilary Duff and Angie Harmon, who like him were TV veterans from The Lizzie McGuire Show and Law & Order respectively. None of them seem to have gone on to much of a movie career, which is a shame since their charm compensates for the slight story. It seems content to merely restage James Bond set-pieces like the gambling scene or the descent into the high-tech lair, rather than wittily re-imagine them for a young audience. Where it scores is with the action and stunt-work which pack a real thrill. Where in the past many child heroes threw custard pies or cardboard boxes, Cody gets to take a punch or whack bad guys with frying pans - yet without the slapstick cruelty that mars Home Alone (1990). Plus erstwhile Lovejoy and Deadwood star Ian McShane gets a nicely squishy demise thanks to former Disney starlet Ms. Duff, which proves a welcome surprise.
Norwegian director Harald Zwart has a peculiarly impatient style that lessens the impact of some dramatic and comedic scenes, but calms down - or else hands over to the second-unit - to deliver some strident action. Most of the skateboard stunts, explosions and hovercraft chases pack more honest thrills than say, Die Another Day (2002). Zwart also pulls off one genuine jump-out-of-your-seat moment near the climax wherein villain Arnold Vosloo, of The Mummy (1999), pops out of nowhere. Agent Cody Banks proved popular enough to warrant a sequel: Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London (2004) that ditched sultry Angie Harmon for blubbery Anthony Anderson. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?