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It has long been a matter of diminishing returns with the “Spy Kids” series for years. While the 2001 original was an enjoyably lively demonstration of Robert Rodriguez’s infinite resourcefulness, subsequent installments have felt stale and grating.
These are movies for families and sometimes by his family, as the Austin-based auteur often likes to include his own kids on camera and behind the scenes. The “Spy Kids”-adjacent “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” from 2005 reportedly sprang from the imagination of his then-seven-year-old son, Racer Max, who received a writing credit.
But families deserve better than the cheap-looking and cloying reboot of the franchise, “Spy Kids: Armageddon,” now streaming on Netflix and playing theatrically in limited release. It’s more of the same, without any discernible improvement in quality, despite the massive technological leaps over the past two decades. Rodriguez’s original claim to fame was his ability to accomplish a lot with a little, wearing various hats at once. Here, he once again serves as director and co-writer (alongside the grown-up Racer Max) as well as producer, cinematographer, and editor. The result is a movie that will appeal only to very young kids; even for that audience, there are too many preferable options.
“Spy Kids: Armageddon” has the exact same premise as the first movie in the series: The parents are secretly spies, and when the kids find out, they have to spring into action and save the day. Zachary Levi and Gina Rodriguez step in for Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino as new characters, Terrence Tango and Nora Torrez. From their hidden lair inside the family’s sleekly modernist glass-and-steel home (the coolest part of the movie, by far), Terrence and Nora tinker with an all-powerful Armageddon code. While playing his favorite video game, their son, Tony (Connor Esterson), inadvertently unleashes the code to brilliant tech billionaire Rey “The King” Kingston (a weirdly bland Billy Magnussen), who plans to use it for nefarious purposes. Now it’s time for the eager Tony and his smart-alecky sister, Patty (Everly Carganilla), to spring into action and save the day and the world. Levi and Rodriguez seem as bored by the material as we are, while the young actors do their best to bring enthusiasm to their banal banter.
There is exactly one clever idea in this movie: That the code becomes a virus requiring people throughout the globe to play a video game to fulfill mundane tasks like taking money out of the ATM. Mostly, “Spy Kids: Armageddon” alternates between frantic slapstick antics and people standing around explaining things to each other. Chintzy green-screen effects turn something as simple as a car chase down Austin’s Congress Avenue into a distracting mess. The lighting often has a flat sameness, regardless of the situation. Because this is a spy movie, there are, of course, gadgets galore, but even those aren’t terribly inspired. A bit involving giant fly swatters quickly grows repetitive, for example. And the whole endeavor feels about 20 minutes too long, with no compelling sense of pacing. The action drags, and then all of a sudden, it’s chaos.
Somewhere beneath the mayhem is the celebration of Latino pride that has infused Rodriguez’s films from the beginning, with his ultra-low-budget indie “El Mariachi” from 1992. Tony and Patty must recite their entire names to gain access to an underwater safe house as a reflection of their heritage. These fleeting touches are welcome and make the movie feel personal. And what little kid hasn’t played a make-believe game in which they’re the hero? “Spy Kids: Armageddon” takes that basic sense of good vs. evil and whips it up into a shrill, annoying frenzy.
Now on Netflix.
Fabiola Andújar as OSS Agent
Neal Kodinsky as Villain Vargos
Bam Rubenstein as Precision Driver
Heath Young as OSS agent
Sam Franich as Schoolboy
Todd Dionne as DAD - Zachary Levi
Geoff Todd as OSS Agent
Brody Stowers as Kid in courtyard