New mom Marissa Wilson (Jessica Alba) has a harder time winning over bratty step-kids Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook) than she does leading a double-life as a secret agent chasing a mysterious super-villain called Tick-Tock. On top of that Marissa's TV journalist husband Wilbur (Joel McHale) happens to be a self-styled 'Spy Hunter.' Though Wilbur has no idea what his wife really does for a living, his spy chasing leaves him no time to spend with his family. Suddenly, time itself starts speeding forward. All over the world hours, days, even weeks rush by as it seems like time will soon run out. Marissa deduces it is the work of Tick-Tock and his cryptic new ally the Time Keeper. On the orders of spy boss Danger D'Amo (Jeremy Piven), Marissa sets out to deliver a mystical MacGuffin called the Cronos Sapphire that will foil the evil scheme but prankster Rebecca swipes the jewel flinging her and Cecil into a race to save the world as the all-new Spy Kids.
Eight years after the underwhelming Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (2003) Robert Rodriguez revived the children's franchise. Now the focus was on a new generation of gadget-wielding child heroes with original Spy Kids Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) relegated to supporting roles. Blink and you'll miss Danny Trejo in his signature role as Uncle Machete. 4D was Rodriguez's big gimmick this time around. More accurately it was 'Aroma-scope', basically scratch and sniff cards so cinema audiences could share some of the pungent odors Rebecca and Cecil smelled along the way. Home video viewers did not get to partake in this experience which, given the smells included vomit and dirty diapers, was probably a mercy.
Paced even more frenetically than the originals, the fourth film is a jumbled blur of action, gags and whiz-bang visual effects, more engaging than the shapeless third movie but clumsier than the first two. Rodriguez exhibits a genuinely childlike imagination crafting crazy concepts worthy of Roald Dahl with nifty cartoon action sequences likely to wow younger kids. The moral of the story, that people should spend time wisely and learn to appreciate love, is well meant and occasionally poetic but the meandering plot is regrettably fixated on gross-out puke and poo gags and marred by a self-congratulatory tone. Symptomatic of this are the sarcastic asides of Ricky Gervais whose snarky vocals scupper the potentially fun concept of the talking kung fu kicking robot dog. When will Hollywood realize his passive-aggressive schtick is ill-suited to family movies?
In terms of performances the grownups are rather more engaging than the kids this time around. Community's Joel McHale is underused but charismatic as ever, Jeremy Piven proves more up to the task of multiple roles than his predecessor Sylvester Stallone and Jessica Alba is actually pretty funny. If nothing else the film is memorable for the opening wherein a heavily pregnant Marissa waddles through her fight scenes then goes into labour in the middle of a high-speed car chase! It was while watching Alba change dirty diapers on the set of Machete (2011) that Rodriguez first hatched the idea of a Spy Mom, a concept with more comic potential than is realized here. Even so, those with fond memories of the early films may feel a little wistful nostalgia when Carmen leads the new duo on a tour of the old Spy Kids lair. Time really has flown.