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MOVIE REVIEW

In return of 'Agent Cody Banks,' Frankie Muniz doesn't age well

The last time we saw Frankie Muniz as junior CIA agent Cody Banks, he was a geeky adolescent out to prove that he could save the world (or at least one hot prep school girl played by Hilary Duff) through a kid-friendly combination of sophisticated spy know-how and disarming immaturity. Unfortunately, Agent Cody's 2003 debut played like warmed-over "Spy Kids" descended from refried James Bond.

The good news is that this time around, in "Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London," Muniz has better secret-agent toys to play with, funnier lines and sidekicks helping him out, and a bit more discerning director in Kevin Allen ("The Big Tease"), who may still go in for fart jokes but at least limits the crass humor that director Harald Zwart papered all over the original.

Anyway, what matters most to the "Agent Cody Banks" franchise is Muniz, which is the bad news.

Even fans of TV's "Malcolm in the Middle" know that this child star is rapidly growing up. These days you can't read US Weekly or watch MTV without seeing the 18-year-old actor escorting lithe blondes and getting his Porsche punked out from under him by Ashton Kutcher. In real life Muniz has, it seems, lost his uncool.

That's a potential problem for a young man playing a dorky junior spy, so the makers of "Agent Cody Banks" have decided that the sequel will harp on how Cody needs to lighten up and reclaim his childhood. "You're too darn old," remarks professional action sidekick Anthony Anderson. "Act like a kid! That's why they recruited you."

Ah, but acting like a kid is so much easier said than done (see Roberto Benigni in "Pinocchio"). No matter how adorable you think Muniz is, it's becoming increasingly hard to buy him as a socially inept teenager/spy whose on-camera mom (Cynthia Stevenson) treats him as though he's still dressing in Garanimals.

Problem number two: Even if the audience for this sequel is primarily kids too young to care about any of the above, the movie still misses its target. At a recent screening, little folks found few things to laugh about, even when they were dished up humorous references to the 1970s movie "Convoy" and an elite pastry program at Compton Community College. Go figure.

As for the plot of "Agent Cody Banks 2," it begins at Kamp Woody, where our aging Boy Wonder has returned for more of the covert CIA training begun in the first movie. Pretty soon he's double-crossed by a former mentor and finds himself assigned to track down the bad guy before mind-control software is implanted in the world's most powerful leaders. This means posing as a gifted young clarinetist among an international band of musical prodigies visiting a London estate, but if the details of that ruse really mattered, the movie wouldn't have a "2" in its title.

Duff has (smartly) moved on to other starring roles, so Cody's crush in this installment is a bandmate played by Hannah Spearritt. She's perfectly lovely, if a nonfactor in the final analysis.

More prominent is Anderson's wild-card agent on probation. To give him his due, Anderson is a funny guy. But if you've seen him in "Cradle 2 the Grave" or "Kangaroo Jack," you've seen him here. Unlike Muniz, he hasn't grown a bit.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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