REVIEW: Even 4 Dimensions Can't Redeem Spy Kids: All the Time in the World
The idea that Machete, Robert Rodriguez's grindhouse tribute, was inspired in part by his Spy Kids trilogy of the early aughts is an appealing one. Danny Trejo played a kid's idea of a bad guy named Machete in the films, then helped carry a genre mutation of the character over into bloody B-movie territory. So it seems fitting that Rodriguez was inspired in turn, on the set of Machete, to reanimate his Spy Kids franchise. It might even bode well. But the germ of the idea -- Machete star and new mom Jessica Alba wrestling with an exploding diaper in full costume -- is little transformed in Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, despite two added dimensions and a brand new cast.
Alba plays Marissa, a secret spy who is nine months pregnant and prepared to give up her work once she gives birth. Marissa is married to a widower named Wilbur (Joel McHale), a television reporter attempting to reinvent himself as a spy-hunter to land a prime time show. Wilbur's two children, twins Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard) and Cecil (Mason Cook), are unimpressed with Marissa, whom Rebecca marks as an especial target for her humiliating pranks. Wedged into this set-up is plenty of talk about time and the ways parents waste it worried about the past or working toward the future as their precious children grow up at lightning speed. "If my show goes well," Wilbur says, "I'll have all the time in the world for my kids."
Imagine the prickly McHale settling on a phrasing for a line like that, or Alba's pretty mouth shouting, "We can't let Tick-Tock escape again!" and you have a fairly decent idea of how Spy Kids 4 goes down. What's meant to be whimsical fun, like the "Aroma-scope" gimmick (on-screen cues are coordinated with a numbered postcard of different scratch 'n sniff patches, all of which smell like Pez but some of which are supposed to smell much worse), feels forced, and the parts of the film that depend on clockwork pacing, like the plot and the action sequences, have the opposite problem. The rhythm is off, a predicament Rodriguez addresses with copious -- nearly constant -- excrement and evacuation humor, and sudden turns into wide-eyed sincerity.
At stake, naturally, is the world -- specifically the passage of time. The helium-voiced, largely disguised Tick-Tock is the minion of the Time Keeper (Jeremy Piven), a clock-headed villain vowing to stop time with his patented Armageddon device. Marissa is called out of retirement to help stop him, and in the process Rebecca and Cecil are endangered and then inducted into the OSS spy unit, where the original spy kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) help train them in the art of old-fashioned comic-book battle. Scampering behind is Argonaut, an electric dog voiced by Ricky Gervais who gets most of the film's laughs and coolest visual gags.
A scene of Alba and Vega being smothered by discarded digital clock numbers is pretty cool, and the Armageddon device turns out to be the interior of an enormous, tool-and-dye clock with gears and arms that grind with deadly force. It's a distinctly retro idea of representing time, appealing aesthetically but rather dull for a story in desperate need of a compelling organizing metaphor. The film is being released in both 2- and 3-D, and from what I could tell the 3-D version is still almost 50-50. What use is made of the technology is hardly worth the effort, unless you've always wanted to experience a cascade of cheesies in 3-D.
Vega makes wistful reference to the seven-year shutdown of the government's Spy Kids operation (the last franchise installment was released in 2003) due to budgetary cuts. "They were ahead of their time," she adds. If Rodriguez's mouthpiece is referring to a cultural trend toward the supernatural and/or technological empowerment of cloying kids with absentee parents, I would like to introduce her to a decade called the 1980s. If she's really talking about the Spy Kids films, I'm afraid this new installment refutes that statement more fragrantly than I ever could.