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The Good, The Bad and the Mediocre 

*Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (PG)
Dimension Films

Blood Work (R)
Warner Brothers

xXx (PG-13)
Columbia Pictures

August generally brings action-adventure flicks and police thrillers to your local movie theater, and the apocalyptic August of 2002 is no exception. Last week brought two James Bond formula knock-offs -- one for kids and their parents, and one for testosterone-pumped adolescent males of all ages -- and Clint Eastwood's latest incarnation of his gruff, brilliant detective persona.

As FBI profiler Terrell McCaleb, Eastwood pays homage to his own aging process (the legendary actor, director, producer is now 72 years old) in the generally bloodless Blood Work. The film opens with a grisly murder scene where McCaleb has once again been left a coded message by a serial killer. Shortly after, he spots the blood-spattered tennis shoes of his suspect on the edge of a crowd and a chase ensues down dark Los Angeles back alleys. Before McCaleb can apprehend the Code Killer, he suffers a chest-splitting heart attack that eventually necessitates a heart transplant and McCaleb's retirement from the force.

Fast forward two years. McCaleb is two months post-transplant and under the watchful eye of his demanding cardiologist, played by the formidable Anjelica Huston. It's delightful to watch her push him around, but her role ultimately diminishes as McCaleb is visited on the boat where he lives by comely, buxom Graciela Rivers (Wanda de Jesus), a Latina woman whose sister Gloria was murdered and whose donated heart ended up in McCaleb's chest. Graciela enlists McCaleb to find her sister's murderer and the two eventually engage in an unlikely if not hilarious bit of romantic hanky-panky. He is what, thirty, forty years older than she and recovering from a heart transplant? Ah, the magic of Hollywood.

The film drags painfully in the first half, but picks up when McCaleb begins to put clues together and pursue the killer, aided by his hapless neighbor Buddy, played hilariously by Jeff Daniels, the film's only real breath of fresh air. I won't reveal any more of the plot except to say that when McCaleb finally figures out the identity of his man, who is also the Code Killer of lore, sadly, we are not surprised. Clues are placed so clunkily throughout that they might as well have arrows pointing to them. Eastwood is effective as the ailing McCaleb, but neither the bullet-riddled screenplay (based on Michael Connelly's novel) nor Eastwood's own direction do justice to this aging successor of Dirty Harry.

The Bond formula knock-offs are two movies as different in intent and execution as can possibly be imagined. Spy Kids 2 is director/writer/producer Robert Rodriguez' first, and certainly not last, sequel to last year's surprise hit Spy Kids. Viewers new to the franchise will find it easy to catch up: Carmen and Juni Cortez (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are the clever and gadget-laden spy children of glamorous spy parents, Gregorio and Ingrid, played by swashbuckling Antonio Banderas and pert Carla Gugino. All work for a government agency that protects the world from, you guessed it, bad guys.

But a bad guy spy named Giggles has infiltrated the agency, and his own spy kids Gary and Gerti (Matthew O'Leary and Emily Osment) are vying with Carmen and Juni for the plum assignment of retrieving a cloaking device, the "Transmooger," from a mysterious island. All four kids, their parents and the Cortez' swinging spy grandparents (Holland Taylor and Ricardo Montalban) eventually converge on the island in question, a tropical paradise rendered invisible by said "Transmooger," inhabited by a wild menagerie of mixed-breed animals (literal swordfish, bulldogs, snizzards and flying pigs), created by the brilliant but timid genius, Dr. Romero (Steve Buscemi).

Key to the Spy Kids movies' success is delightful tongue-in-cheek humor accented by some very thoughtful core values. Here, family togetherness and the potential danger of what we create are the central themes. Dr. Romero, who has long remained hidden from his mutant offspring asks the unlikely and provocative question: "Do you think God stays in heaven because he fears what he has created?"

Little Gerti Giggles wags her finger and scolds her father when his over-ambition is uncloaked: "Just wait 'til I tell mom you tried to take over the world again."

Juni and Carmen are cool and not overly cute, brave but satisfyingly normal -- kids any real kid would aspire to be. In a mind-reading scene, Carmen tells her little brother: "Think something." He replies immediately: "Your feet stink."

The sets and effects are Peewee-Hermanish, painted in garish colors and unexpectedly witty, but of high digital quality. Rodriguez apparently relishes the chance to romp again on this fertile, outlandish fantasy canvas and he puts his talents to good use. Spy Kids 2 is satisfying entertainment for kids of the 6-12 ilk and their parents will enjoy the ride.

The runaway blockbuster hit of the nation, XXX, also a Bond knock-off, tells us more than we want to know about the state of the nation's appetite for violence at this creepy time in the nation's history. Fans will call it comic relief or vicarious kick-ass satisfaction. What it really is is hard to tell.

Starring buffed-up, head-shaven, tattooed Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious) as outlaw-turned-special-agent Xander Cage, aka XXX, this is James Bond on steroids vs. post-Cold War Dr. Evil, set in Frankenstein's castle dungeon. XXX ultimately cannot decide whether it is a) a comic book-style adventure flick where all is not as it seems; b) a legitimate invention of a new breed of action-adventure hero; or c) all-out parody.

Cage is a renegade ("I like anything fast enough to do something stupid in.") who sells Web video of his trumped-up stunts, like driving the Corvette of a reactionary politician over a cliff and parachuting from the vehicle before it crashes into the rocks below. Within the first five minutes of the film, the scene is set with the film's first big visual -- an exploding fireball car crash. In ten minutes, we have at least ten more. By the end of the film, the entire countryside is exploding -- wow!

Apprehended by National Security Agent Augustus Gibbons, Samuel L. Jackson with a bad facial scar ("It's a small price I paid for putting foot to ass for my country."), Cage is told that he can either go to prison or do Gibbons' bidding. A free spirit who can't imagine himself confined, Cage opts to please Gibbons and finds himself entangled in the underground world of Anarchy 99, a group feverishly implementing chemical warfare in the basement of their spectacular castle, nestled in the mountains surrounding Prague.

Asia Argento plays a Russian spy caught in the web of Anarchy 99 and substitutes just fine as the "Bond girl." New Zealand actor Marton Csokas gives it his Dr. Evil best, complete with evil Russian accent, as Yorgi, the disaffected leader of the anarchists who rubs his hands together in delight as he watches his band of dedicated scientists writhe and die when the nerve gas they invented is turned on them. "They did their job," he clucks. "Now they are liability."

The film's producers and special effects geniuses get completely carried away with the action sequences, stretching them out way too long and to little effect. Cage miraculously survives a crushing avalanche and any number of bone-crunching crashes. Ultimately he rides out the wave of the film on a racing projectile, clutching a potentially explosive projectile, and finally, is set awash beneath the river after all the projectiles explode around him.

XXX could have been fun but dies in explosive overkill and is doomed by its confounding identity crisis.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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