I enjoyed a great deal of Spies in Disguise, its premise alone is a complex and daring one for these fire and brimstone times. Directed by Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, Spies shows incredible restraint by actually setting up the world and its characters before diving headlong into its premise. Remarkable for a kid’s film to not only take its time but to commit so fully to the idea of a man being turned into a pigeon.
Walter (Tom Holland) is a young scientist at the intelligence agency of H.T.U.V. (Honor, Trust, Unity, and Valor). Agent Lance Starling (Will Smith) is the agency’s best and most infamous agent. Walter is a shy, nerdy, over-talkative teen. Lance is a suave, streetwise, stoic, cool spy. A couple so odd they must be thrown together in a series of wacky hijinks as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
As a child, I adored a series of Disney films starring Tommy Kirk and Dean Jones with titles like The Shaggy Dog, The Return of the Shaggy Dog, or The Shaggy D.A. Essentially Kirk or Jones, would stumble upon an old ring with an inscription on the back and if they read it aloud they turned into a shaggy sheepdog; wacky hijinks ensued.
However, the script by Brad Copeland and Lloyd Taylor has a weighty proposition to propose to its audience in addition to the hijinks. What if counterintelligence and counter-terrorism was non-violent? Spies comes by this conceit honestly, with Walter’s mother Wendy (Rachel Brosnahan) who was a police officer killed in the line of duty. Even as a young child, Walter came up with inventions to stop the bad guys to keep from hurting them.
What the film and Walter understands is that violence, like abuse, is a cycle. “There has to be another way,” Walter pleads with Lance. Lance understands Walter’s pain, he himself has lost people in the field. For a family movie, Spies is clear-eyed and brutally honest when it comes to the dangers and violence within the justice system as well as the cyclone of emotions which spring from the trauma.
Lance understands but disagrees. He is fueled by anger and a grandiose sense of ego, well-earned, based on the opening scenes in which he takes on a crowd of samurai sword-wielding henchmen. “Sometimes there is no choice.”
That all of this is buried in a plot where Walter turns Lance into a pigeon while Lance is on the run because he is being framed by a robot clawed handed one-eyed villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn) is impressive. Once Copeland and Taylor’s story hits pigeon-land, Spies takes on a sort of Saturday morning cartoon adventures. I had flashbacks of The Sword in the Stone as one lady pigeon became infatuated with Lance as a pigeon.
But it works.
Marcy (Rashida Jones) is the head of the internal affairs of H.T.U.V. She is hot on Lances and Walter’s tail and is the only one who seems to notice the strange pigeon following Walter around. Lance, of course, is annoyed and insulted by her which means by the end they will be quipping and flirting with one another.
Quane and Bruno have an eye for movement. After escaping Walter’s house seconds before it is destroyed by H.T.U.V., the duo takes off in Lance’s car. The scene itself could stand next to almost any scene from the Fast & Furious franchise, both in imagination and in absurdity. It’s also about the time where the film began to melt my icy disinterest.
Odd Couple humor can grate and at times feel forced in the hands of the wrong actors. But Smith and Holland have enough charm that they pull it off. I rolled my eyes when Holland’s Walter began showing non-violent weapons to Lance. Not because I disagree with it but because I knew the film would drop it the moment it became dramatically unsatisfying or an “exception” would be met.
Killian stealing an atmospheric drone, a drone that uses everything around it to power itself, thus making it a relentless unstoppable killing machine would certainly be an understandable exception. Especially since Killian has also stolen the H.T.U.V. database which contains the identities and locations of all it’s agents. Throw in the fact that Killian has created hundreds, thousands of these drones, and you have a character made to “killed with good reason”.
Yet, Spies stays true to its premise. Turns out Killian knows Lance, remembers him as he killed his fellow countrymen. As he holds Lance strapped in a chair forced to watch the death of his fellow agents Lance finds himself apologizing sincerely. Killian throws Lance’s own motto back at him. “You hit me. So I hit you back harder.”
Not everything works in Spies but it’s dedication and fidelity to its premise is a rare thing in a world dominated by people who don’t kill but always end up killing the bad guy because he didn’t sign a multi-picture contract. Weirdly unlike those movies, also made for kids, Spies seems to understand who its audience is and has decided it won’t backtrack on its idea simply to satisfy our need to see the bad guy get it.
In the end, after all is said and done Killian with his glowing red eye wakes up to find himself still alive and it turns green. He is not forgiven or let go but we are given a brief glimpse of what could happen if the systemic cycle of violence is broken. Lance tells Walter once “It’s the only way.” Walter replies, “If we hurt them we hurt ourselves.”
Many may disagree with Spies and call it propaganda. They will conveniently ignore that propaganda isn’t good or bad as well as that most children’s films have propaganda in some form or another. Oddly, the film feels like the stories the Brothers Grimm used to tell. Spies in Disguise is mildly disturbing yet filled with an uncomfortable truth designed to make us reconsider what we held to be true before. Impressive for a film operating on the old Shaggy Dog premise of old Disney films.