How would you enjoy a mash-up of the action and teen movie genres? I mean, if you pretend you haven’t already seen exactly that in Agent Cody Banks and Alex Rider: Stormbreaker and, to some extent, Spy Kids, and the Young Bond novels, too. There was also an American cartoon, James Bond Jr., not to mention the Jackie Chan vehicle The Spy Next Door. Then you also have the Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man films, plus the upcoming second reboot, and Kick-Ass 1 & 2, as well as Grosse Point Blank, which plays out a lot like a teen movie despite its adult characters, and there’s the dark humour of Heathers and, speaking of dark humour, Luc Besson’s masterpiece Léon the Professional.
But if you pretend none of those exist, then it does sound like a pretty entertaining conceit. Here we have Hailee Steinfeld as Megan aka 83, who’s sort of a regular teen except that ever since birth she’s been conditioned in a La Femme Nikita-esque secret programme to be a ruthless assassin for the American government, never allowed to leave her training academy except on missions and never allowed to form any attachments, but aside from that, fairly regular. Except on one particular mission she ends up faking her own death so that she can go to high school and experience the normal adolescence she feels has been denied to her. So, from there, the film starts to progress as a more straightforward teen comedy, heavily indebted to Mean Girls and The Breakfast Club, both of which are referenced by name. But, of course, Megan can never escape her past life as 83, so we always know things are building to a climax that will be too action-oriented to be funny, but not action-oriented enough to be exciting.
To sort of prop up the film and insert a disappointingly small number of lively comic scenes, we have two total mercenaries playing mercenaries: Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Alba. This film isn’t anything new or fresh for either of them; Jackson played the villain in the superior spy action comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service earlier this year, while Alba actually took on a more substantial part in Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in addition to a recurring rôle in “Mexican James Bond” counterpart the Machete series. Together they’re the best part of this film but between them they manage maybe five minutes of total screentime. In Jackson’s case, about half of that is bogged down by a not-very-interesting subplot about Megan’s angsting over how insubstantial Jackson is as a surrogate father figure.
Here we have a strange juxtaposition of morality. The United States government have been raising an army of child soldiers in secret for some time which makes them basically Kony but they’re never really taken to task over this, except by Megan, and then it’s only selfishness over the perceived deficiency of her childhood. Contrast this with, say, the way the Black Widow programme in Marvel’s Avengers and Agent Carter is pulled out for a nice bit of trauma analysis without distracting too much from the all-important fighting and exploding. If you’re going to bring up the issue, then you’ve kind of forced yourself to deal with it satisfactorily, otherwise you look like a weak compromise. No-one’s bothered by the notion of child soldiers in Spy Kids because no-one talks about it, there are no guns, there’s no violence, and, at least in the first two, everyone’s having fun.
Not that I didn’t have intermittent fun with this film, but I feel like the ratio was weighed heavily towards “not fun”: just mentioning a couple of famous teen movies doesn’t make your picture smart or knowing, and it doesn’t work as an excuse to fill your film with all the most eye-rolling clichés. And inserting, like, one car chase doesn’t mean you have cross-demographic appeal. And just because Sam Jackson and Jessica Alba rolled out of bed for one day’s highly-paid work doesn’t make this an “A” feature.
Barely Lethal is out in the UK today! Will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!