Was I too hard on Spy Kids 2 and Spy Kids 3? I certainly think about them a lot more than I do many “better” movies. I’ve watched the clip of Steve Buscemi saying that one line about a hundred times. And Robert Rodriguez, the auteur of this idiosyncratic Crayola vision, really landed some memorable kid actors. My tolerance for bad CGI varies by the day, and given that was my biggest complaint about each of the films, maybe I’d be a bit warmer in the right mindset.
Perhaps it’s telling that I spent most of Spy Kids 5 thinking about previous entries in the Spy Kids Cinematic Universe. Like Spy Kids 4, this is a reboot, so the characters introduced in Spy Kids 4 are an abandoned memory. For that matter, there’s also no appearance of Carmen or Juni; though it should be noted that both Daryl Sabara and Alexa PenaVega are older than Carla Gugino was when Spy Kids premiered, so any opportunity to call them Spy “Kids” is long gone.
What we have with the new protagonists is a greatest hits collection of the previous Spy Kids movies: There’s some base infiltration, like Spy Kids 1. There’s some CGI Ray Harryhausen-inspired monsters, like in Spy Kids 2. And there’s some gnarly green-screen thrill ride abominations like Spy Kids 3. And not much of anything from Spy Kids 4, but there isn’t much there I would consider a “greatest hit.”
The cast this time around is Zachary Levi and Gina Rodriguez as the spy parents and newcomers Connor Esterson and Everly Carganilla as the titular children. Levi and Rodriguez are charismatic enough for the part, though they both play the role with a bit too much levity. Part of the charm of Spy Kids 1 was how straight-faced Gugino, Antonio Banderas, and Danny Trejo played the adult roles. Esterson and Carganilla are fine, never distracting but very forgettable.
Rodriguez thankfully does not abandon the most prominent recurring motif of Spy Kids, which is a villain who is a troubled creator taking his fantasies too far. This time, as with Spy Kids 3, the villain is the reclusive inventor of a popular video game, though this time he’s not played by Rocky. “The King” (Billy Magnussen) steals a piece of software called “The Armageddon Code,” which can reprogram any computer system.
When he does so, he infects electronic systems throughout the world with video games so they can only be accessed if the human populace starts slowing down and enjoying the lighter side of life. E.g. you can only access an ATM if you beat a platforming puzzle first. Alas, The King only has half of The Armageddon Code, so only half of the world’s systems are infected. (I’m in IT professionally, but you probably don’t need me to tell you that that none of that is how malware works.) Thus, he searches for the second half of the code, which is protected on a flash drive of sorts by the two spy kids.
It’s a bit too convoluted as a conflict, vaguely gesturing towards themes that Rodriguez has attacked more potently in previous films: For example, the one great part of Spy Kids 4 was a reflection on a parent and society that values professional productivity over family bonds. Shorts, for all its bodily function humor, is a surprisingly fun satire on a life dominated by technology.
Rodriguez has long exited his “coked up whirlwind” phase and entered his “competent craftsman” phase, meaning that Spy Kids 5 is much more functional in terms of story and polish than, e.g., the otherworldly ugliness of Sharkboy and Lava Girl. There are even fewer surprises here than the similarly-professional We Can Be Heroes. The set up and payoff and character threads all more-or-less work, but they feel less intimate than ever. At least there are no film-breaking mistakes here like the annoying sidekick or gross-out humor of Spy Kids 4.
So what do I do with all that in sum? Rodriguez up to his old tricks with more competence than ever, never broken, always fun and breezy for its 95 minutes, but not even one iota of it surprising and daring? I guess it’s “better” than Spy Kids 3 and 4, and maybe even 2, but is “better” always better?