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It may be overused, but how else do you describe driving a Ferrari, flying a helicopter and hanging out with beautiful women when you’re still in high school? Hal Hayes checks out the world of Agent Cody Banks and concedes that it is… well, awesome.

Kids movies have come a long way since Shirley Temple. She may have helped Abe Lincoln win the Civil War, but she did it by looking cute. Likewise the Home Alone trilogy was mainly about kids who would appeal to the adults, even if their behaviour showed signs of unacceptability (especially if you were a career burglar). Now, however, kids are doing it for themselves.

Take Agent Cody Banks, a movie in which a kid does all the things a real kid might want to do but never could, like drive a Ferrari, get the coolest girl in class… and, oh, save the world.

"our own inner children wanted to be in this movie"

Of course, Frankie Muniz is a little older than Macaulay Culkin was in the Home Alone movies: he's a full-blown teenager - which we should know, since we've watched him grow up in TV series Malcolm in the Middle and last year's surprise hit, Big Fat Liar. But, in Agent Cody Banks, Frankie really comes of age - and not just by doing kid things, either. As the film’s producer David Nicksay puts it, “our own inner children wanted to be in this movie, so we were all drawn to working on it. It speaks to all of us: we all wanted to beat the bad guys and save the world.”

Looking just like your average teen, Cody (Muniz) actually has a rather unusual secret life: one summer, when his parents thought he was just going to camp, Cody was picked by the CIA and trained as a top-secret agent. By the time he came home, he could handle a car chase, do spectacular martial arts moves and be confident with a whole range of really cool, spy-type gadgets. Except nobody knew but Cody - not his parents (played in the movie by Cynthia Stevenson and Daniel Roebuck); not his friends; not his high school teachers. Just Cody - and, of course, the CIA.

Having been a ‘sleeper’ (that, by the way, is cool spy talk for an agent who hasn’t been active in a while), Cody gets a real surprise when an incredibly beautiful woman in dark glasses strides straight into the boys’ locker room and tells him to follow her.
The beautiful woman is CIA agent Ronica Miles (Angie Harmon) and she is, frankly, not too thrilled to be there. Because of anger-management problems, she’s been put on probation by the CIA and has been given the agency’s equivalent of traffic duty. “She’s put in charge of Cody Banks,” explains Harmon. “She’s incredibly bitter and incredibly angry… and she’s very self-centered.”

Cody’s excitement at his first assignment is short-lived. Sure, it involves saving the world, but first he’s got to make friends with Natalie Connors, the most sought-after girl in his class, played by Hilary Duff, star of the Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire. For all the $10 million the CIA has spent training Cody, getting to know a girl is not something in which he has any special skill - or something that can, for that matter, be taught.

"a dilemma we can all relate to"

“The core of the story is a dilemma we can all relate to,” says director Harald Zwart. “We’re all insecure in the face of the fanciable opposite sex. My favourite part of the movie is when the CIA take it upon themselves to teach Cody how to deal with girls. It becomes apparent very quickly that there is no ‘one solution’. There is no one right answer, or even question, to get the girl.”

The reason Cody has to get close to Natalie is because her father, scientist Dr Connors (Martin Donovan), has developed a new range of miniature Nanobots, which, in the wrong hands, are about to destroy the planet. This is all part of a scheme hatched by the movie’s real villains: Brinkman, played by British actor Ian McShane, and the fearsome Molay, played by South African-born Arnold Vosloo, who was the actor under the Mummy make-up in the movies of that name.

Developed by an army of producers, executive producers and associate producers (included among them Madonna), Agent Cody Banks went into production last US summer on a tight, 52-day schedule in Vancouver. Shooting had to be completed before Muniz went back to do another season of Malcolm in the Middle. And, for the film’s finale, two crews - the main one and the second unit - ended up working round the clock in the disused power plant which housed the 500-foot set representing the mountain fortress of ERIS, Brinkman’s evil empire.

But the speed of the shoot didn’t mean cutting corners, either when it came to the special effects in the ERIS finale - Cody and Ronica arrive by helicopter to rescue Natalie, are captured by Brinkman, turn the tables on their captors, and finally escape on Snowcats while the whole place erupts in a fireball behind them - or the safety in the many stunts Muniz had to do.

"They’re really expensive skateboards"

Take the one that starts the film. Cody is on his skateboard - as befits a junior CIA operative, a top-of-the-line ‘Street Carver’. “I think there are only a thousand of them in the world,” says a clearly impressed Muniz. “They’re really expensive skateboards. They’re so amazing – you turn and you can go in a complete circle where you stand. It’s weird to get used to – normally you lift up the back of a board a little bit and then turn really hard. On this, you barely do anything, and it’s really smooth and quiet.”

Whether the Street Carver was actually designed to do what it does in Agent Cody Banks is another matter. Spotting a baby trapped in a runaway car on a very steep hill, Cody skates off on a rescue mission.

“It’s a snappy way to start a movie,” says Nicksay. “Here you see a normal kid who seems like just another teenager going to school, and suddenly he leaps into action and performs a feat of rescue that is beyond belief.” Right from that moment, in other words, you know Cody is not just your average high-school kid.

The baby-rescue scene took three days to film, with Cody mounted on a platform attached to the car’s bumpers, and the car either towed by a stunt truck or, when going backwards in full shot, steered by a stunt man lying on his stomach under the back seat and looking out through a hole by the rear license plate.

“Frankie started at the passenger side of the car,” says special effects co-ordinator Tony Lazarowich, “and skated all the way around to the driver’s side. Although there were safety precautions in place, there was also an element of jeopardy. It’s him riding on the front of the car and sitting on the bumper, skating through intersections. It was him stuck to the tail end of that car and going through the crash traffic. He’s a very gutsy kid.”

"Cody has this quadruple life"

He’s also, says director Zwart (a leading commercials maker), a pretty exceptional actor. “Cody has this quadruple life,” says the Dutch-born, Norwegian-raised Zwart. “He pretends to Natalie that he’s a normal kid. He pretends to the CIA that he’s in control of everything. Then he actually starts to fall in love with this girl. And at home he’s trying to conceal the fact he’s a secret agent. There are quite a few levels to Frankie’s performance, and he’s great at juggling all those things.”

“Harald is awesome,” says Muniz, returning the compliment. “His mind is all over the place. ‘Ohhh, I want to do that!’ And ‘Ohhh, we’ll do this shot’. He has the best ideas, and the way he wants to share everything is awesome.”

Which is pretty much what one would expect of the director of a movie in which the only real threat to saving the world from the Nanobots is the need to clean your room and get your maths homework done.

Published September 25, 2003

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