You might think Kevin Allen a most peculiar choice to preside over the sequel to last year’s junior-grade James Bond vehicle for “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz, and it turns out that you’d be right. The Welsh actor’s first directorial effort, 1997’s “Twin Town,” was an extraordinarily mean-spirited (and foul-mouthed) would-be comedy about hooligans and gangsters in West England. He mellowed in his second entry, “The Big Tease” (1999), about a flamboyant Scottish hairdresser’s trip to America. But neither picture suggested that Allen had the temperament to tackle a teen spy flick. And “Agent Cody Banks 2” proves that he doesn’t.
Perhaps it was the British setting of Don Rhymer’s script–the secondary title spells it out–that determined Allen’s selection. And he does, to be sure, seem in sync with the rather fey sense of humor that dominates here. In sequences that feature, for example, a whining fellow from whom one of the leads requisitions a moped, or a comically doddering butler, or an arrogant orchestra conductor, or a laughably officious cop, Allen choreographs things as though he were helming a low-class British sitcom for PBS consumption. (A scene involving a liquor-serving, piano-playing dog is even strange enough to have come out of “The Goon Show.”) But these moments seem positively weird in the context of a picture made for American kids. And in the segments that are the meat and potatoes of a “Cody Banks” movie, he’s utterly at a loss. The action set-pieces are pretty much a mess, not only chaotic but entirely too violent for this setting. And when Allen goes for straight slapstick, it’s even worse.
The person who suffers most from the ineptitude in the latter respect is Anthony Anderson, who takes on the role of Derek, the jive-talking CIA guy who becomes the handler for Cody (Muniz) when he’s assigned to track down a renegade agent named Diaz (Keith Allen, the director’s brother), who’s stolen some mind-control software and absconded with it to London, where he’s going to link up with a nasty British scientist (James Faulkner). In order to get close to the plotters, Cody poses as a clarinet prodigy who joins the international youth orchestra sponsored by the scientist’s wife (Anna Chancellor), while Derek enters the household in the guise of a cook to keep watch on him. In that capacity he wreaks havoc in the kitchen in sequences that are meant to be hilarious but look sloppily improvised.
Meanwhile Muniz goes through his superspy paces, breaking into buildings, dodging what appear to be mini-missiles and engaging in a couple of knock-down, drag-’em-out fights that are not only ineptly staged but far too realistic to be much fun. Though the gangly teen can still be charming, this time around the makers stumble badly in turning him into a cocky heroic type widely feted as the best in the business. Much of the enjoyment in the initial installment was that the kid was a nerdy guy whose enlistment as an agent seemed totally implausible; it was the contrast between his geeky personality (embodied in his utter ineptitude around girls) and the derring-do he engaged in, however haltingly, that gave the flick whatever modest amusement it possessed. But all of that has effectively been jettisoned this time around. Cody’s become nothing more than a precocious professional, and as such a much less interesting fellow. He’s not even given much to do in the romance department–a late-blooming connection with a flautist named Emily (Hannah Spearritt), who turns out to be just what you expect, doesn’t manage anything near to the relationship the character had with Hilary Duff’s damsel-in-distress in the earlier movie.
What that leaves us with are arch, unfunny villainy from Allen and Faulkner (the former is especially grating–a bad example of nepotism in casting), another snorting turn from Keith David as the CIA director, some thoroughly unfunny bits from Malcolm’s orchestral colleagues, and–most painful of all–a really dreadful finale featuring a bevy of bad actors impersonating an assortment of world leaders. (Query: why have the stand-ins for the British prime minister and the queen been chosen to look as much like Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth as possible, while the guy playing the U.S. president doesn’t remotely resemble Dubya Bush? Is it okay to ridicule foreign leaders but not ours?)
Even the English locations don’t make much of an impression here, nor do the second-rate special effects. This uninspired, maladroit entry should insure that “Cody” won’t be bankable for long, and that his days as a cinematic “Agent” are numbered.