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Agent Cody Banks

Agent Cody Banks (2003) Starring Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff, Angie Harmon, and Keith David. Directed by Harald Zwart. Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski.

Don't be too discouraged by the video box. It boasts reviews describing the film as "fun for the whole family." Usually, this is code for "misery for everyone except insecure parents and children who have not yet developed high standards of entertainment." But in this case, I found the film actually enjoyable.

Agent Cody Banks is a comedy adventure about a 15-year-old spy. It has some problems, but not as many as expected.

Early in the film, a 30-ish woman walks into a high school boys' locker room and immediately every student ogles her and several sexually harass her until she smacks them around. This lust for older women is an embarrassing cliché, but at least in this case they make it kind of believable by having the woman (Angie Harmon) look like a supermodel with poster-perfect cleavage.

 
Angie Harmon and Frankie Muniz in Agent Cody Banks
Angie Harmon and Frankie Muniz

Later in the film, young Agent Banks (Frankie Muniz) attends a ritzy birthday party and uses his X-ray sunglasses to (what else?) see some women in their underwear. (Apparently, the glasses cannot penetrate those articles of clothing that protect the film's PG-rating.) These women appear to be part of the catering staff. Their age is unclear. Many viewers thought these women were teenaged party guests. Muniz's older CIA accomplices can see his view on their monitors, and they, too, enjoy the X-ray peepshow. Whatever the women's ages, there is something age-inappropriate here.

Yet there is something redeeming here, too. Often, pop-culture treats "teenaged boys" as being more lustful than older men. Just yesterday on NPR I heard an interview with a model who had a sexy video game character modeled after her. The interviewer asked, "Does it bother you that a lot of teenaged boys will look at this representation of you in a sexual way?" The average age of video game players is 28. The interviewer never asked about the possibility of 28-year-olds ogling her electronic body. So it was refreshing here to see this scene showing the 15-year-old and his 30-ish partners acting and thinking in parallel ways. This scene acknowledges "teenaged boys" and "adult men" are not two separate species. (A similar scene appeared in the film Sneakers.)

The other thing that annoys me in this film is when the hero uses his spy connections to get CIA professionals to do his chores for him, and yes I mean household chores his parents have assigned him against his will. This is another cliché: whenever a fictional teenager gets a fantasy-type advantage or ability, he uses it to do a better job of pleasing his obnoxious parents. The worst example of this has to be that Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa gain super-powers. How do they use them? To do a better job raking leaves in their parents' yard. Why are they still bowing to their parents? The parents don't have super-powers.

Despite these problems, Agent Cody Banks gets better as it goes along. While Muniz occasionally glances at Harmon's eye-candy body, he is clearly more interested in Hilary Duff, his same-age love-interest. When he tries talking to Duff, nervousness overcomes him. Muniz is perfectly smooth exchanging snappy lines with Harmon. This is one way we know he considers Duff more important. In the third act, he defies CIA orders and risks his life to rescue Duff. He never goes far out of his way for Harmon.

This third act is the best part of the film. Muniz, assisted by Harmon, sneaks into the villains' secret fortress to rescue Duff. What's great is that, through fist fights and explosions, Muniz never once needs to be rescued by Harmon or any other adult. In fact, it is he who rescues Harmon at one point.

movie poster: Agent Cody Banks starring Frankie Muniz and Hilary Duff

He gets to punch out bad guys — even though they are grown-ups. They never overpower him to satisfy the audience's insecure adults.

Muniz defeats the villains, saves Duff, rescues his partner, and saves the world. More importantly, perhaps, he gains the respect of the CIA's adult agents. Even his cold handler tells him she now views him as her equal. If only this could happen in real life.

The film ends identically to XXX. Muniz kisses Duff while ignoring Harmon's order to return to service. Usually, a film with a young hero ends with the youth returning to a state of submission toward adults. Home Alone, for example, ends with the young hero apologizing to his parents for failing to please them. It is the filmmaker's way of assuring insecure parents by showing that, even though the young hero can occasionally stand up to adults, he now is happily back in his "place." Agent Cody Banks ends with it's young hero defying orders from an adult so he can enjoy the company of another teenager. This scene suggests Muniz has grown more independent, more self-respectful, and has developed a greater appreciation for himself as a teenager. We will have to wait for Agent Cody Banks 2 to learn whether he can take this new-found confidence into his home life and tell his parents to do their own chores.

In any event, Agent Cody Banks goes down in history as the spy movie with the biggest character arc. In XXX, the ending meant little in terms of the protagonist's character. He was rebellious in the opening scene, he was rebellious in the end: no change. Cody Banks starts out as the submissive, obedient son (eg. kissing his mom because she orders him to), and in the course of the film, he grows to heroic proportions.

This film was criticized for unoriginality. While it did borrow much from other films, it put these elements in original contexts. It was intended to be just another silly kids movie, but it wound up being more. I'm not sure how much more. When a film starts off bad and then gets better, it's easy to overestimate its quality just because it surpassed the low expectations set in early scenes. But this movie left me wanting to cheer, and that's more than I can say for most films of this nature.

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