Spy young

Frankie Muniz, the Jerry Mathers of his generation, tips his secret-agent shades in <i>Agent Cody Banks</i>.

Frankie Muniz, the Jerry Mathers of his generation, tips his secret-agent shades in Agent Cody Banks.

Rated 2.0

Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz) is a typical 15-year-old American boy who lives in Seattle (in keeping with the Hollywood penchant for stories that take place in picturesque cities with weak unions and strong film commissions). Cody goes nowhere without his backpack and skateboard. He gets tongue-tied trying to strike up a conversation with a pretty girl, and he gets razzed about it by his buddies in the locker room. He has parents who are amiably clueless (Daniel Roebuck and Cynthia Stevenson) and a 10-year-old brother (Connor Widdows) who’s a snotty pain in the butt.

Oh, and Cody works for the CIA. He’s part of a program through which the CIA recruits young people at summer camps all over the country. That’s the way in the new and dangerous world in which we live: National security simply has become too vitally important to be left to adults.

The writing credits on Agent Cody Banks are worth mentioning. The screenplay is by Zack Stentz, Ashley Edward Miller, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, from a story by Jeffrey Charles Jurgensen. According to the Internet Movie Database, Jurgensen has no other credits; Stentz and Miller wrote 11 episodes of the TV series Andromeda before this, their first feature; Alexander and Karaszewski have credits that range from Problem Child to Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt to the 1997 remake of That Darn Cat. There’s no way to confirm this, but my guess is that this is how the story got cooked up: Jurgensen, maybe fresh out of film school, wrote the script and sold it to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Then, it was handed off to neophytes Stentz and Miller for a second draft—and maybe a third, a fourth and a fifth. Eventually, old pros Alexander and Karaszewski were called in to whip all the previous drafts into something director Harald Zwart could shoot.

Mind you, I’m just guessing, but look at the credits: five writers, eight executive producers, five producers, two associate producers and one co-producer. That’s 16 producers, folks—enough to make up a pretty crowded Thanksgiving dinner. (Movies are made more by committee now than they ever were at the height of the studio system.) But, with all those fingers and thumbs stuck in the pie, it seems never to have occurred to anyone that it might make an interesting story to follow the teenage spy from recruitment through the CIA training program, culminating perhaps in a zippy adventure in defense of the free world. Instead, the hook for Agent Cody Banks was probably a quick, snappy concept like “a teenage James Bond.” The movie skips directly to our boy Cody as a full-fledged spy, so we can get straight to the gadgets and babes.

The gadgets are the usual array of high-tech toys: X-ray telephoto sunglasses, helicopter jet packs and so on. The babes are Angie Harmon (formerly of TV’s Law and Order) as agent Ronica Miles, Cody’s “handler” (i.e., babysitter), and Hilary Duff as Natalie Connors, the daughter of a reclusive scientist (Martin Donovan). Cody’s assignment is to make friends with Natalie so the agency can find out what her father and his shady associate Brinkman (Ian McShane) are up to. (Not that it matters much, but Brinkman is up to no good; Dr. Connors is more or less reluctantly along for the ride.)

Frankie Muniz (of TV’s Malcolm in the Middle) carries the movie with surprising aplomb, and I admit he’s beginning to grow on me. I always found him a little too mechanical, like an android version of Fred Savage from The Wonder Years. But, as an adolescent, he’s becoming a handsome young man and losing some of that Hollywood slickness. He may turn out to be one of those child actors like Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster, who grow into their talent rather than out of it.

There’s nothing really wrong with Agent Cody Banks. Parents will find it a harmless and reasonably efficient time killer, I suppose. But it’s unimaginative and passionless. It looks like the competent but halfhearted work of contractors who punched in in the morning, did their jobs and punched out at night, never giving the project a second’s thought after leaving the studio.