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Movie Review

I don't think I've ever seen a movie that captures a 13-year-old American boy's perfect spy fantasy as well as Agent Cody Banks does. It was precisely at that tender age of newfound independence and exploration—13—that Cody Banks was drafted by the CIA as a junior agent. He was sent to a special CIA training (summer) camp to learn self-defense, attack skills and spy doctrine. Then he returned to his home to await his first big undercover assignment. All this without his parents even having an inkling that their completely normal kid, who's still years away from getting his driver's license, has a license to kill.

Two years go by uneventfully, aside from a few scattered acts of bravery and bravado on Cody's part (an opening scene shows him racing after a runaway car—being "driven" by a 3-year-old child—on his skateboard, climbing onto the speeding vehicle's roof, then reaching inside to bring it to a stop inches away from a lumbering train). Then, one day after P.E., Cody gets the call. His CIA handler, Ronica Miles, strides into the boys' locker room and begins reciting the secret passwords. His assignment? Transfer to a nearby prep school and "get close" to the prettiest girl there (Natalie Connors). He's to use his newly forged friendship with her to gain access to her father's secret laboratory in which evil conspirators are plotting to use cutting-edge nano-technology to take over the world. What warm-blooded, budding adolescent wouldn't die to be (or date) Cody Banks?

positive elements: Cody finally succeeds in conquering his debilitating shyness around pretty girls. Does that count as a positive element? Cody does save the runaway baby at great risk to himself, but he doesn't really work for the CIA to help his country or save the world, he just thinks it's cool. And the bad guys are ultimately taken out, not to halt their dastardly plans, but as a byproduct of his mission to save his girlfriend (Not that that isn't positive, of course).

sexual content: Cody's younger brother (age 10) brags about having been on more dates than Cody and claims to have played "Doctor" in their tree house. When Ronica bursts into the boys' locker room, she's wearing a skin-tight get-up that's "unzipped down to there." It reveals a great deal of cleavage. She doesn't always dress that sleazily, but many of her outfits are designed to exploit her figure. Cody is issued X-ray sunglasses which he uses to ogle women's underwear. Moviegoers are shown what he sees for 15 seconds before Ronica presses a button in the surveillance van which pixilates the image. Quickly discovering that Cody is not as proficient at "getting the girl" as they had thought, the CIA assembles a group of "experts" to lecture him on how to "mate." In doing so, one man fondles plastic breasts that he pulls off an anatomy model. A computer animation shows a nude man and woman (black boxes cover their sexual organs). All of that pales, though, beside Cody's final lesson which arrives in the form of an alluring holographic woman (whose top rivals Ronica's in the cleavage department). Cody and Natalie start to kiss (the camera shifts away from them before their lips lock).

violent content: In the locker room, Ronica yanks one boy's towel from around his waist (he's wearing underwear) and uses it to flick several other boys for making rude comments about wanting her to pick them instead of Cody (one lash lands near a boy's privates, another sends a locker door smashing into someone's nose). When a group of uppity prep school bullies grab Cody and try to throw him into a swimming pool, Cody puts the smack-down on them, knocking them silly and hurling several of them into the water. That's the kind of violence I expected to remain the norm for this PG film. I was wrong. It escalates into full-scale war. While mostly bloodless, numerous, extended action sequences include hand-to-hand combat (kicks, punches, pushes, falls), huge explosions, perilous chases and the destruction caused by virulent microscopic "nanobots" that eat everything in their path. A knock-down drag-out in a restaurant culminates with Cody smashing heads with frying pans. Goons kidnap Natalie, forcefully throwing her into a car. Using a jet-powered snowboard, Cody knocks a man from his snowmobile, then lights his pants on fire with the flaming exhaust. He uses his special-issue, multi-tasking watch to direct an electrical shock at a classmate, and later, a group of bad guys. Natalie shoves an ice cube containing nanobots down a terrorist's throat. When the cube melts inside his stomach, the mechanized killers eat him from the inside out (his gruesome disintegration is more hinted at than seen, but viewers will certainly get the point).

crude or profane language: Cody's kid brother begins to say "holy s---," but his mother covers his mouth, muffling the second half. A half-dozen mild profanities include "h--l," d--n" and misuses of God's name. Other degrading terms many parents won't want their junior spies investigating include "crap," "freak," "loser," "screw-up," "idiot," "suck" and "nerd."

drug and alcohol content: None.

other negative elements: Cody couldn't care less what his parents want, think or do. He's got more important things capturing his attention. It's not that he has an especially bad relationship with Mom and Dad, he just doesn't notice that they exist—and he lies to them to maintain his cover. When he stays out too late with Natalie (he can't tell them it's because she was kidnapped and he fought to save her from the bad guys), they ground him for a month. He honors their instructions for all of about 45 minutes before paying off his younger brother to cover for him as he slips out the window on another "mission." Elsewhere, Natalie's birthday party features a Las Vegas casino theme complete with play-money craps, roulette and blackjack. Teen guests sip what is presumably soft drinks from bar-style cups and glasses. When Cody gets tongue-tied because he doesn't know how to talk to girls, Natalie (and another girl) ask him if he's in "special-ed." Cody's dog urinates on a CIA agent's foot. The man then stuffs a bag containing the dog's feces into his jacket pocket. After Cody takes his driver's ed teacher on a wild ride, it's apparent that the instructor vomited on his shirt. Flatulence passes for humor in a van crammed with secret agents.

conclusion: It's James Bond Jr. shaken, stirred and let loose on suburban Seattle. A little bit War Games, Home Alone and Mission: Impossible; a whole lot Spy Kids. Intentionally campy and trite (stylistic homages are made to classic flicks Dr. Strangelove, Barberella and Goldfinger), and with a cool-factor that's off the charts, Agent Cody Banks zeros in on its target audience so effortlessly one wonders if a 14-year-old was left in charge of production. Preteens are making quite a dent on the box office lately, and Hollywood's convinced they want action, romance and lots of cool gadgets. They're probably right. Even 17-year-old star Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle) seemed awed by the idea of being in this film. "I knew it would be really cool," he said. "I'd never done a big action character. I saw The Bourne Identity, and Matt Damon has all these fight scenes where he beats up bad guys—I kept thinking, 'Wow, that's so awesome! I'll be doing those moves in Agent Cody Banks.' Helping girls, saving the world, cool cars and gadgets—it's all pretty awesome."

How's a discerning parent to compete with that kind of glowing endorsement?

"I think kids are more exposed to everything today, and they're a much more sophisticated audience," says film producer Christine Peters (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days). "They have this over-the-top exposure to MTV today that is so incredibly exploitative and sensual." How does Peters suggest parents deal with it? "You can't protect them from everything, so you might as well go with it, rather than try to fight it," she says. I couldn't disagree more. While not chock-full of vulgarity and sleaze like Austin Powers, parents will still need to think long and hard before herding their youngsters out the door and down to the cineplex for a secret rendezvous with young Agent Banks. Loads of big-bang violence, sly sensuality and not-to-be-imitated attitudes can make a big impression on young kids ... and teenagers.


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