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To be honest, this kind of film held no appeal for me as a child. I was already watching actual Bond films from a young age, I had no need of the more child-friendly, toothlessly cringe imitator. But watching it as an adult? Surely that would make me want to tear out or render inert every sensory organ I possess? Friends, there are few things on this earth more irritating than going into something expecting, nay, knowing you’re going to hate it only for it to not be as bad as expected, and even more insultingly, somewhat enjoyable. Make no mistake, Agent Cody Banks is not a good film by any stretch but annoyingly nor is it entirely pants.
Frankie Muniz plays the titular Cody – is there a name that makes you want to punch a human in the face more than Cody? – a seemingly ordinary teen who is in fact a CIA operative in training. He’s highly intelligent, athletically capable but with only one small character flaw; he can’t talk to GIRLS. Owing to the machinations of a completely wasted Ian McShane and his plan to destroy the world with nanobots (for in the early noughties, it was always nanobots), Cody is drafted to find out the details. How? By getting close to a GIRL, whose father created the nanobots. Oh no, his *only* character flaw! The GIRL is of course played by the inexplicably popular, yet only fleetingly relevant, Hillary Duff.
The most striking thing about the film is that it’s not just another Spy Kids; it’s not simply a “James Bond but children” and rather closer to an Austin Powers or more recently, 21 Jump Street and Kingsman. The problem with watching it now is that those latter two examples exist and are infinitely better and more fully realised versions of this concept. Still, along with the fairly authentic Moore-era Bond film finale, impressively grizzly villain death, and the Mission: Impossible style approach to (heightened) believable world-building in its gadget use and design; this was a much more authentic action-spy film than merely a childish joke at the expense of one – for the most part.
The area where the film really shines is in its Austin Powers-esque moments – a comparison it seems to be anticipating with a strange but unmistakable aural reference at the end. This almost entirely revolves around the CIA, who could honestly have been given their own, much funnier film. Keith David is the most brazen source of humour, playing the loud, slightly deranged head of the agency. He’s needlessly menacing, legitimately terrifying and it’s quite unclear if this is what was written or simply what Keith David showed up on the day and did. In either case it works. The day to day workings of the CIA in the film are also a constant source of well-observed amusement.
The main gag – which has aged quite well – is that as an organisation, they simply have access to too much power and money. The logistical and financial overkill they employ to solve the simplest problems along with characters who seem to literally not know how physical money works, borders on the Absolutely Fabulous. There’s also more biting satire which, while not going far enough, was still surprising to see in a film like this. Jokes about how at ease the CIA seem to be at having – effectively – child soldiers, the fact that the CIA’s recruitment of children gives the villain the idea to do the same, and a very Starship Troopers presentation about how the training of children for clandestine warfare is going. When asked if their level of surveillance is going too far, David’s character responds: “Creepy? We’re the CIA. That’s what we do”, some lightly edgy joshing in ’03 which seems positively quaint now.
Tonally, the film stays the course of this well-intentioned satire that never quite goes far enough. Apart from one sequence that is. A single scene of such blistering racism that it feels like it burst through a wall from a different film. Our two leads go to their driver’s ed class only to sigh at the fact that they got the hard-to-please instructor. Said instructor, in this case, being one of the loudest, most obnoxious and tone-deaf Asian caricatures to ever appear in modern media. Think South Park’s Tuong Lu Kim but in live action and somehow worse. I don’t mind admitting I was in tears watching it, not laughing *with* the scene but at it. It was so racist, too racist, to be real. I’m still not entirely convinced it wasn’t an incredible act of trolling on the filmmakers part, a meta-joke parodying the kind of stereotypes you usually see in films like this. But it wasn’t, it was just a black hole of bad things™.
Amusing to note that even the title of the YouTube video has “REAL” in full caps lock, as if even the uploader can’t quite believe this exists:
What the film really exemplifies though is just what a hellish wasteland of pop culture the early noughties were. If Lady Bird felt like an affectionate look back at the naff-ness, this is the authentic pure awfulness in all its glory. Right from the off, we have an overlong and highly elaborate action scene with an almost impressive number of layers of contrivance to justify using a skateboard for it. One suspects the film was set in San Francisco purely to justify the endless hill needed to make this “radical”, “bodacious” and “totally tubular” scene viable. Not that it makes it any less head-crushingly embarrassing to sit through. Then there’s the ten-second loop of Nelly’s ‘Hot in Here’ that plays every time Angie Harmon’s character and her cleavage enter a room. The little-exasperated sighs her character is permitted to release at the indignity of having to babysit a minor do little to make you forget about her perpetually and needlessly exposed navel.
While on balance this is a far more competently made and ultimately quite watchable film than the posters or TV spots of the time implied, it is nevertheless as wholly disposable an entertainment product as Duff or Muniz were as talents. There’s nothing really wrong with it – apart from the sexism which isn’t as bad as it could have been, or racism which is so much worse than it ever should have been – but nor does it embody anything approaching timeless or even culturally relevant. It existed, it exists and until the EMP apocalypse, it will continue to exist.
This film received a sequel. This article will not.