When Robert Rodriguez busted out Spy Kids, many viewers were surprised, but they shouldn’t have been. Though considered a quintessential “indie” auteur, given that he made El Mariachi for around $7,000, he was always a lighthearted action director at heart, as anyone who actually saw Mariachi could tell you. When MGM tried to create its own version of Spy Kids — Agent Cody Banks — with Norwegian indie director Harald Zwart at the helm, no one was surprised, and the flick did well enough that a sequel is arriving in a month or so.
Someone at Fox also was paying attention, but only to the crude formula. So take one Danish film (Klatretøsen, aka Catch That Girl) about kids on a mission (“without permission,” as the tagline has it), remake it in America, and hire a hot indie director, and you get Catch That Kid. Problem is, not all indie directors are alike, hence the bizarre hiring of Bart Freundlich, a director known for meandering comic dramas about young men with father issues. Freundlich has two kids in real life, and seems able to direct child actors with no problem. But suspenseful action sequences? That’s a whole different beast. And the fact that Freundlich’s kids are still very much preteens may explain why the kid-speak of the twelve-year-old protagonists sounds suspiciously cribbed from Beavis and Butt-Head, with copious use of terms like “buttmunch” and “fartknocker.”
To the extent that the film does work, it’s mainly because of lead actress Kristen Stewart (Panic Room), who proves to be quite an agreeable screen presence. Despite the dolled-up image of her face on the film’s poster, she’s a scrappy tomboy, and far from the jailbait-ho image so prevalent in youth entertainment today. If Freundlich were to direct Stewart in some kind of amusing drama about a dysfunctional family, it would probably be really good.
Unfortunately, he has to stage a heist, and does so even less competently than Brian Robbins in last week’s The Perfect Score. Stewart’s Maddy needs $250,000 to obtain experimental surgery for her dad (Sam Robards), who has suffered a mysterious paralysis related to a climbing accident about a decade earlier. That neither his injury nor the process needed to cure it are ever described or explained in the slightest is but one symptom of the general lackadaisical feel of the film. That copious numeric keypads display only letters on their LED screens is another.
So anyhow, taking advantage of the fact that her mom (Jennifer Beals) runs security at a local bank run by the tyrannical Mr. Brisbane (Michael Des Barres, channeling Terence Stamp), Maddy decides to rob the place, and corrals her two best friends — aspiring filmmaker Austin (Corbin Bleu) and go-kart mechanic Gus (Max Thieriot) — into helping out, by pretending to be in love with both of them. Deftly demonstrating, at an early age, the tools needed to manipulate the male of the species, she is prone to barking out commands such as “I love you, now do what I say!”
After about forty tedious minutes of setup, the heist is finally a go, and needless to say, Maddy’s dream of becoming a mountain climber like her father will come into play. Also coming into play is production designer Tom Meyer’s obvious love of Star Wars — not only do we get the Death Star chasm, but also the eyeball camera from the front door of Jabba’s palace, multiplied several times and placed in every major location. Freundlich fans will notice the auteur’s hand primarily in his by-now-routine casting of James LeGros as a total wack job, herein a psycho bank guard reprising his “I know kung fu” shtick from World Traveler. Bald character actor John Carroll Lynch fares better, playing a security consultant with a Robert De Niro fetish who fancies himself an actor.
Still, how disinterested a director does one have to be to not wring suspense out of a lengthy sequence of children in jeopardy? Freundlich generates cheap thrills on one occasion by having Maddy hanging from a great height by her fingertips, but screws it up by having her hold on for much longer than any twelve-year-old’s arms could realistically maintain; Gene Hackman didn’t last as long in The Poseidon Adventure. The rest of the time, nothing. Note to studios: If you’re going to mismatch director and material so thoroughly, try getting it even more drastically wrong. You may create a train wreck, but at least it’ll be an interesting one.