The best scene in "Agent Cody Banks" is a spoof on summer camp. The camp has served as a secret training spot for junior agents, and we've just heard the CIA director explain to his staff that he has singled out camper/junior agent Cody, 16, to save the universe. Meanwhile, in a flashback, parents in station wagons are dropping off their kids at that camp, never suspecting that the counselors were secret agents. No more than 30 seconds, this camp snapshot with the parents is good because it's funny. And it's funny because it's parody.
Compare that with one of the movie's worst scenes. A young mother leaves her toddler alone in a parked car, and like clockwork, here comes trouble. Little Tommy unlocks the emergency brake, sending the car racing down the hills of Seattle. This is the movie's first chance to show off the "special" in Cody Banks, played by Frankie Muniz of "Malcolm in the Middle." Riding his skateboard, Cody catches up with the out-of-control car, hoists himself on top of it, reaches through the sunroof and saves that mischievous kiddo's life. Mom and practically the whole population of Seattle come running down the hill, camera-ready for the local 5 p.m. news. And the kid? Never even flinched. Instead of freaking out like any normal child would when flying down the street unhinged, this kid laughed for the whole ride. No more than two minutes long, this short action sequence takes itself seriously, but isn't serious, so we want to laugh at the sheer stupidity but can't because it's just not funny. Here lies the crux of this movie's problem.
Cody's mission is to cozy up to Hilary Duff (Natalie Connors), a cute, rich girl at one of Seattle's tony private schools - where Cody is a new transfer, thanks to the CIA. Natalie's father, Dr. Connors, is a scientist gone wrong. He developed ice cubes to hold micro-organisms capable of destruction, intending them for good, but he is being forced by the very tan villain Brinkman (Ian McShane, playing the role straight) to use them for evil. Cody is supposed to get close to the good doctor through his daughter and then, simply, save the world.
Cody is your basic teen, mad at his parents, awkward with the ladies and not much for the books. So right off the bat the movie has a lot of explaining to do. If he's not that smart, not that athletic and not that suave, how's he going to work the spy gadgets and run out of fires unscathed in a tux? One never knows. He does have the help of Angie Harmon, well cast as his sultry CIA handler, Ronica Miles. With her low voice, jumpsuits, cleavage and Segway, Miles is all satire all the time, and we love her for that.
Muniz, on the other hand, is not. He seems to have learned that acting is all about facial expressions.
Perhaps this is just Muniz being himself, a real teenager, rolling his eyes and furrowing his brow at everything from his nagging mother to a gang of assassins, but it's not a nuanced performance. Had the movie chosen to go the campy route, Muniz probably would have shined, using his face and vacant delivery to their fullest potential. But most of the time, everything is played ridiculously straight.
True to any good spy flick, Cody has a loud and long action sequence and morphs into the slickest 16-year-old this side of Vancouver. The ending scene leaves the door open, and one assumes that a sequel will be in the works - and soon, before Muniz turns into a man. We can only hope that in "Agent Cody Banks 2," parody will win a clear victory.
2 stars (out of 4)
"Agent Cody Banks"
Directed by Harald Zwart; written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski; photographed by Denis Crossan; edited by Jim Miller; production design by Rusty Smith; music by John Powell; produced by Dylan Sellers, David Nicksay; an MGM release; opens Friday, March 14. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG (action violence, mild language and some sensual content).
Cody Banks - Frankie Muniz
Natalie Connors - Hilary Duff
Ronica Miles - Angie Harmon
CIA Director - Keith David
Brinkman - Ian McShane Dr. Connors - Martin Donovan
Allison Benedikt is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.