You may not want to hear this if you grew up with it, but this month marks the twentieth anniversary of Spy Kids, the first instalment in the blockbuster franchise helmed by director Robert Rodriguez.
The family themed action movie and its sequels have earned well over half a billion at the box office, and the original film was Rodriguez’s most successful prior to 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel.
Yet, when many film fans think of the filmmaker, the first thing that comes to mind is more adult fare such as Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn.
This disparity is exactly what makes Spy Kids so fascinating, as Rodriguez did what few had done before him – make a successful transition from mature stories to family friendly adventures.
It’s hard to imagine Rodriguez’s ’90s contemporaries like Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, or David Fincher dipping their toe into PG waters, let alone something that will appeal to little ones.
While some auteurs have made child focused films, it’s been with varying results. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo remains divisive, while Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack and Zack Snyder’s Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole have largely been forgotten.
Where Rodriguez succeeded was to not simply make a family film ‘his way’, but adapt his whole style to suit the genre.
The director’s style can best be described in one line: “all hell breaks loose”. This is the direction given by From Dusk Till Dawn screenwriter (and frequent collaborator) Tarantino, who trusted Rodriguez to choreograph action scenes rather than write out what was happening.
This is a common thread in Rodriguez’s work, a Western style philosophy where witty exchanges escalate into hellacious action scenes where everything gets broken and all the bad guys are shot into red mush.
Obviously that level of gore is not suitable for Spy Kids, but there is a lot of that philosophy still there. Brother and sister Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sebara) discover not only are their parents (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) retired spies, but they have been kidnapped by the host of Juni’s favourite TV show, Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming).
To get them back, they have to enter the family business, taking on a number of villains on the way to Floop’s elaborate lair.
The diminutive duo take part in a number of fight scenes, all with the usual manic energy of a Rodriguez movie, but with some elements substituted.
The adult characters aren’t hitting or shooting at the kids, and likewise we aren’t seeing a pre‐teen bludgeon someone to death. Guns and blood are replaced with jet packs, electrified bubble gum, and instant cement.
A long way from the machine gun leg of Death Proof, but keeping that sense of inventiveness alive with a new focus. Rodriguez described the film as “Willy Wonka‐meets‐James Bond”, and has drawn comparisons with his breakthrough film, 1992’s El Mariachi.
“We made (El Mariachi) goofy” he recalls in a 2001 interview with The Guardian. “It was about a guitar guy, not an ex‐cop or a road warrior type. If you watch this and then see the other movies, you can see how similar they are in tone, in the way that nobody could take them seriously”.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see other elements of the past in Spy Kids. Banderas’ smooth spy could easily be his character from Desperado, a few years on and slightly softened.
It was also the birth of another Rodriguez favourite, Danny Trejo’s Machete. He makes his first appearance in this film as an inventor of spy weapons, and is revealed to be Banderas’ estranged brother. Trejo would go on to portray the character in the much more explicit Machete and Machete Kills, but would continue his role as a kind of Q-character for the Cortezes in other Spy Kids instalments.
While the age rating may fluctuate, Rodriguez’s vision lives happily in both worlds.
Spy Kids would go on to inspire a number of similarly styled movies in the 2000s – the Agent Cody Banks films, Stormbreaker, and comedies like The Pacifier and The Spy Next Door, which would feature action legends bringing their brand to wider audiences.
The director himself would move happily back and forth, making dark crime films such as Sin City as well as bright, bubbly romps like Sharkboy And Lavagirl, and last year’s We Can Be Heroes.
While Rodriguez was not the first person to bring action movie sensibilities to a family friendly film, the respect he brought to the making of Spy Kids created a blueprint that allowed these movies to be appropriate for younger eyes without insulting their intelligence.
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