Ignacio (Jack Black) has never been particularly adept at anything but he has great passion for the things that matter to him: cooking and wrestling. Growing up in a Mexican orphanage ‘Nacho’ always dreamt of becoming a “luchador”--the term for a Mexican wrestler--and he even had the paunch to boot but alas it was highly forbidden by the religious orphanage. Now grown up he works as a chef for the only home he has ever known. He’s subjected to constant criticism at the hands of monks for the slop he calls food but claims he isn’t paid enough for quality ingredients. So as he sees it his only solution for more money is to pursue the forbidden fruit of becoming a luchador. He picks up a rail-thin peasant (Hector Jimenez) along the way to form a tag-team duo. Together they’re so horrendous that fans line up just for a laugh. But that makes them underdogs and we all know the fate of underdog characters in movies.
Jack Black maybe the best comedic actor of his extraordinarily gifted generation is a sight to behold. In Nacho Libre his mere pose which invariably sees him showcasing his belly as if a trophy is enough to arouse laughter. But once he opens his mouth forget it! Nacho’s broken English-and-Spanish dialect is tailor-made for Black as is his character’s penchant to break into Tenacious D-style song to profess his love for a nun (Ana de la Reguera). The problems with Black are due to his improper utilization at times (see “direction”) not his performance which is about as flawlessly inane as verbal/physical comedy gets. He taps into mania with an ease that hasn’t been seen since John Belushi. As Nacho’s equally hopeless sidekick Esqueleto Jimenez garners his fair share of laughs thanks mostly to the wrestling scenes. But his high-pitched yelps forced ineptitude and blank expressions grow old quickly.
Director Jared Hess should’ve quit after his first feature Napoleon Dynamite. Only because expectations for his follow-up in this case Libre simply cannot be met. That said he doesn’t only make sophomore mistakes; there is promise and talent on full display here. For instance Hess again exhibits an ability to find and/or create the most outlandish characters from the star all the way down to the unknown Mexican extras. But even at just over 90 minutes long the film drags and seems like a hilarious skit stretched way too far. That’s because although conceptually hilarious the story (which Hess co-wrote with wife Jerusha and veteran Mike White) is as thin as Nacho is portly. And as Hess has learned the hard way with bigger budgets come bigger constraints such as not-so-subtle humor (fart jokes pratfalls) to appease the teen masses. Hess’ fatal flaw however despite what will again be an underrated offbeat effort was to not stray further from his trademark movie thus keeping the animal that is Black caged--albeit in a large cage.
Alejandro (Banderas) the former thief turned defender of the downtrodden seems poised to give up his swashbuckling ways as California shifts from Mexican territory to U.S. statehood. But he stubbornly refuses to be domesticated. A rift grows between Mr. and Mrs. Zorro when his wife Elena (Zeta-Jones) insists he’s not there for his spirited young son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso). But even as Elena appears to divorce Alejandro and dally with a mysterious dashing old schoolmate (Rufus Sewell) Zorro remains a much-needed force of good when he discovers a plot that threatens to tear the U.S. apart. Still ranking high among the most beautiful people currently on the big screen Banderas and Zeta-Jones successfully evolve their on-screen relationship to reflect the too-long passage of time between films. If only the arch energy they bring to their banter and the passion they heat their love scenes with weren’t hindered by the clichéd by-the-numbers script. Meanwhile though a semi-believable potential romantic rival to Banderas the ever-arresting Sewell remains one of the most underutilized actors in Hollywood relegated to yet-another period heavy role. Alonso shows pluck as the budding Zorro Jr. but his charisma is dampened by overly cutes-y scenes and too-modern one-liners. Even though both Banderas and Zeta-Jones have emerged as top-flight actors and A-level movie stars since the original the sequel still sorely misses the class and gravitas Anthony Hopkins brought to the first outing. None of director Martin Campbell’s films since The Mask of Zorro have demonstrated the same whip-smart panache and sadly this sequel though serviceable is no exception. He competently carries off the necessary but familiar-feeling action set pieces and at times he lets the simmering sex vibe between his stars run loose albeit briefly on the screen. The film certainly isn’t so lackluster as to provoke bored Zs from the audience but it’s a shame to see El Zorro’s blade this dulled.
There was a fresh quality to the original Spy Kids. The idea of two children finding out their parents were superspies whom they wind up having to rescue showed a new twist on kid empowerment. Unfortunately that fresh imagination which appealed to audiences and catapulted the original into a smash hit is not as prevalent in the sequel. What writer/director Robert Rodriguez does instead is further the story along; now there is a whole new branch of kid spies at the OSS. Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) and older sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) are now star Level 2 agents but brother/sister agents Gerti (Emily Osment) and Gary (Matt O'Leary) Giggles are quickly becoming stars in their own right. The two rivaling duos set off on a mission to a mysterious island their objective to locate and destroy a device that could wipe out all the world's technology. On the island they discover weird animals roaming around created by a mad scientist (Steve Buscemi) who is hiding somewhere on the island. Juni and Carmen soon run into big trouble when their gadgets and gizmos don't work. They have to use their wits to figure things out but a little help from the whole family--dad Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) mom Ingrid (Carla Gugino) and their grandparents (Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban)--doesn't hurt either. The time has come for a little family power to save the day.
Vega and Sabara continue to do a nice job in their roles as Carmen and Juni especially Vega. It is fun to see how she's grown up over the last year. Carmen is a young woman now and her amorous feelings towards Gary Giggles add a nice touch to her character. The interesting mother/daughter conflict between Carmen and Ingrid which was explored in the original has now switched to a conflict between Juni and his dad. Gregorio feels like his son doesn't need him anymore now that Juni is a super kid spy. It doesn't hold up quite as well. Sabara gets a little romance of his own in the form of the U.S. president's daughter (played by How the Grinch Stole Christmas's Taylor Momsen) and he handles the chores as little leading man well. Osment (who is a spitting image of her older more famous real-life brother Haley Joel) and O'Leary make nice additions to the story as the rival Giggles and if there's a third Spy Kids we hope they'll be a part of it. As far as the adults Banderas does well with his comedic moments but he and Gugino almost seem like caricatures of the loving parents they fleshed out so well in Spy Kids. Taylor Montalban and Buscemi are simply wasted. Period.
Spy Kids 2 relies more on special effects and gadgetry than the original did and that's a shame. The heart of Spy Kids was about family and trust but Rodriguez has chosen to focus more on the spy aspects than family issues in the sequel. Of course some may disagree with this assessment because the theme of family is certainly prevalent in Spy Kids 2. It just seems much more superficial and forced than the first. The thing to point out however is the special effects are not nearly as spectacular as they could have been. If the film is hyping itself as action-packed with gadgets galore then one might expect glorious visuals. Instead the effects are reminiscent of the early '70s Sinbad B-movies even down to Juni and Carmen fighting skeletons. And the island looks more like it should belong to Dr. Moreau with odd combo animals like the spider-monkey (half spider half monkey of course) and the slizard (you can guess). Maybe Rodriguez intended to use this particular style and if he did he should be told it didn't really work that well.