5 out of 5 stars

Writer, director, editor, producer, cinematographer, camera operator, production designer, VFX supervisor, and composer are just some of the roles Robert Rodriguez performs. This ‘one-man film crew’ was also a childhood role model for me. As a typical boy with an unhealthy love for action cinema—Die Hard (1988) was trapped in the VHS player, Hard Boiled (1992) hard-wired into my brain—I was ecstatic to discover a ‘Latino John Woo’ who could tell the wild story of a gunslinging guitar player for as little as $7,000.

Rodriguez hoped El Mariachi (1992) would interest the direct-to-video Spanish markets but it instead caught the eye of Columbia Pictures, who spent $193K more than the budget just to clean the print. His surprise debut grossed £2M and launched Rodriguez into Hollywood, where he made its sequel/reboot Desperado (1995) and collaborated on Four Rooms (1995), where he forged a friendship with another filmmaking messiah: Quentin Tarantino. Together they spawned From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and, before Rodriguez directed The Faculty (1998). All of these are childhood favourites of mine. Imagine my shock when I read this encounter Rodriguez once had: “A guy told me his son loved Desperado. I said, how old is your son? He said, six. Fuck! He shouldn’t be watching that! I can’t make movies like that anymore.”

Rodriguez took a breather to raise his three children—Rocket, Racer, and Rebel—and knew he needed to make a movie for them: Spy Kids. Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) Cortez think their young lives are boring, especially their parents Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) and Ingrid (Carla Gugino). But the truth is they were once top-secret spies and now a lunatic mastermind has kidnapped them and is hellbent on world domination. And so, armed with high-tech gadgets, their wits, but with no parental guidance, the Cortez siblings take up the family business to save the world. How significant was a family-friendly project for the man who put a vampire-shooting crotch-gun on film? Rodriguez turned down The Mask of Zorro (1998), X-Men (2000), Planet of the Apes (2001), and the infamously never-made Superman Lives!

Rodriguez establishes Spy Kids with a spell-binding prologue that ranks alongside Up (2009). The romanticised bedtime story of two expert spies whose love threatens both their governments is not only exhilarating backstory but deftly sets a wonderful tone. Mixing high-octane thrills with children is tricky—see Agent Cody Banks (2003), Stormbreaker (2006), and Artemis Fowl (2020)–but this revisioning of the espionage world of honourable agents who prevent wars rather than aid them put children and parents at ease with a thrilling adventure. The radiance between Banderas and Gugino is so striking that I’m astonished Rodriguez never delivered a PG-13 prequel story for them.

There’s an entire star-studded cast to compliment, too. Danny Trejo has perhaps the only one of four-hundred roles where he cries. There’s Cheech Marin and his wacky faux moustache. George Clooney and his wackier faux censor bar. And a triple-bill of comical villainy with Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), Teri Hatcher, and Tony Shalhoub. Leads Vega and Sabara are never undermined as child actors; in fact, they shine just as brightly as their adult co-stars with two marvellous performances. A fun inversion has Juni the younger scaredy-cat, with Carmen burdened to look after him, giving boys an alternative to headstrong heroes and girls a chance to be that headstrong hero.

Kids share the same issues parents are facing, reflecting the importance of communication. Banderas’s natural comedic bravado clearly affects the near-constantly clumsy Juni, but both learn courage isn’t measured in success but perseverance. Carmen strangely relates less to her mother than their newfound uncle; embellishing her maturity—an iconic “oh shiiiitake mushrooms!”—she pines for independence but sees Machete’s estrangement from Gregorio a sobering preview in her own sibling resentment. The only minor complaint is that, while Gugino’s a delight to watch, Ingrid’s an archetypal concerned mother cliché. It’s particularly egregious because her bumbling husband gets more backstory with some flashbacks with scientists, despite never once displaying a genius intellect. The kids insist how boring their parents, despite them living in a cliffside villa, and Juni outright asks, “what’s so special about being a Cortez?” Spy Kids delivers incredible escapism but reinforces the invaluable lesson to cherish what you already have, which is exactly what motivates the villain.

As the despondent Willy Wonka living in his own televised wonderland, Floop is played by BAFTA-winning Alan Cumming in his greatest performance. A straightforward Bond homage reimagined within an absurdist fever-dream. Robot henchmen who are all thumbs, former spies turned mutant sidekicks, a virtual reality prison which puts his head literally in the clouds. While Bond faces death against The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) on his carnivalesque island retreat, Cumming exudes an enchanting and disarming presence that earns our sympathy. Floop just wants the world to be a better place, and when his peers demand serious results he recognises that children are our future.

That’s what Rodriguez realised, and why there’s a real connection between the two. Financing his initial projects as a human guinea pig, he put his body and mind on the line with radical science to achieve the creativity “just to keep myself alive.” Floop couldn’t understand the authentic happiness that was missing with his costumed strangers on CGI backdrops (accidental avant-garde satire), much like Rodriguez could’ve accepted all of those blockbuster Hollywood titles, but “if I could just draw cartoons or make little movies on the side, I would be happy for the rest of my life.”

Everything behind the scenes feels like a family experience, not least of all because Rodriguez’s wife at the time produced all his films. Against a background of guns and violence, Rodriguez demonstrates a Spielbergian aptitude for capturing child performances, aided by his frequent cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who later won an Academy Award for Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The score is an eclectic ménage of Danny Elfman, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Mexican artists Los Lobos, featuring Rodriguez covering Tito Puente. Even George Lucas offered the Skywalker Ranch for editing, inspiring Rodriguez to shoot digital in future. Among this prestigious pedigree, Spy Kids may not appear to be high art; I compared it to Up but it never attempts that incessant emotional bombardment that Disney excels in. A simple message of loving family stems from a simple aspiration, “this is the first movie my parents can see and say, ‘That’s my boy!’”

Spy Kids didn’t need to be complicated for it be successful. On a $35M budget it earned $148M and holds an impressive 93% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes two decades later. The sequels have proven less evergreen, but are consistent with Rodriguez’s modest budgets achieving box offices profit: $119M for Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (2002) and $197M for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003). After three back-to-back films, there was a long break before Spy Kids 4-D: All the Time in the World (2011) suggested the magic was over after poor reviews and a disappointing $85M return. Netflix nevertheless made a 20-episode animated series called Spy Kids: Mission Critical (2016-2018) and, earlier this year, a reboot from Rodriguez himself was announced to follow a new, multicultural family. Then there’s the ‘spin-offs’—Machete (2010) and Machete Kills (2013)—with Danny Trejo doing “what Uncle Machete does when he’s not taking care of the kids.” Um, kill people with machetes.

I haven’t directly followed in Rodriguez’s footsteps as I’d hoped to when I was a kid, but he may have influenced my life still. A dear, demented friend—who alleges Spy Kids 4 is the best one—loved Spy Kids dearly, and in reminiscing through her blog archive, I discovered someone had tagged her in an unrelated post of mine. An origin to our friendship was never clear and now, in the throes of nostalgia, a reference to Spy Kids appears to have ignited a friendship. A recent Guardian editorial made waves online for critiquing the ludicrous cultural movement of Shrek (2001), and I believe in theses film’s significance in inviting children to open themselves up for pure, unadulterated fun. When someone does that, it enables others to look right into their soul to what makes them happy, and those connections are so intimately compelling. Scoring Spy Kids less than perfect ignores the responses it generates, as it’s a wonderful hug in cinematic form.

Art is an expression that unites people. These days on Twitter, it’s all too easy to find wanton criticism causing divisive arguments, and it’s a welcome reprieve to bond with someone over something so innocuously trivial. Spy Kids may not be your favourite film, or one you rate particularly highly, but we all find comfort in things which give arbitrarily objective critiques a personal sting. Don’t be afraid to be personal with a film; here’s art from that friend to Alex, fellow alumni of Frame Rated and the one who brought me into the fold. Without these real expressions of familial closeness I wouldn’t even be writing this.


frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Robert Rodriguez.
starring: Antonio Banderas, Cara Gugino, Alan Cumming, Teri Hatcher, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Robert Patrick, Tony Shalhoub, Alexa Vega & Daryl Sabara.