by Normandy D. Piccolo
“Magnum, Rockford and Marlowe never had to rake leaves before a case.”
~ Sam Steele Junior
Whoever said homework can’t be fun never met Writer/Director Tom Whitus. Mr. Whitus has donned the fedora once more and penned another adventurous Sam Steele detective movie aimed at children. The Junior Spy Agency (2014) (aka: Sam Steele and the Crystal Chalice (2011)) follows in the gumshoes of Mr Whitus’ previous work, Sam Steele and the Junior Detective Agency (2009).
Aside from negotiating chores with his Mom to allow for agency time, Detective Sam Steele Junior (Jacob Hays) has to write a term paper about a Soviet Premier who once visited his hometown, Des Moines, in the late 1950’s. Sam is not thrilled about the assignment, until he is hired by antique shop owner, Ms. Jenkins (Dee Wallace), to bust a shoplifter in her store. Soon Sam and the rest of the Junior Spy Agency, Emma Marsh (Katherine McNamara) and Doug the Dog, are pulled in to solve a crime that has plagued Des Moines and Russia for decades….the whereabouts of an ancient crystal chalice unknowingly smuggled into the United States by the Soviet Premier and later hidden by a bellboy named Emile.
Adding more mayhem to the case are Joe (Joe Backer), a nosy front desk manager, a Russian spy posing as a fire chief/Daniel “Dmitri” Carr (Mik Scriba), a professional thief/Reginald Cash (Kevin Sorbo) and of course, his three klutzy sidekicks, Kirby (Jeff Chase), Vince (Michael A. Delia) and Meryl (Gene Wolande). Meryl loves to dance with mops. I’m guessing he watched the ending of The Carol Burnett Show one too many times.
I thought actor Jacob Hays (Sam Steele Junior) and actress Katherine McNamara (Emma Marsh) did a convincing job of playing their characters. They had good comedic chemistry on set. I found it rather entertaining when Sam would speak out loud in his head, especially over a girl, and Emma would verbally cut him to the quick as if she knew what he was thinking. As for Detective Doug the Dog – he is just adorable, making his way all over town. Everyone knows Doug. Sort of like Norm in Cheers, but with a bone instead of a beer.
What had me excited to review The Junior Spy Agency was the fact that one of my all- time favorite actresses is in it, Ms. Dee Wallace (Cujo, Secret Admirer, E.T.). Ms. Wallace is a seasoned actress with an ability to play a wide range of roles. In The Junior Spy Agency, her natural acting talent definitely had me questioning if her character, Ms. Jenkins, who owns, Jenkins Fine Antiques & Flea Market, was good or another thief searching for the crystal chalice too. Ms. Wallace is an outstanding actress, as always.
Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Andromeda, The O.C.) went from playing a hunky good guy to playing a hunky, bossy, domineering ring leader of thieves. He takes pleasure in having his dopey minions do the dirty work, while he gets to stay in a nice hotel and play with the fun spy equipment like a camera mounted on top of an electric toy truck. Mr. Sorbo was the perfect arrogant, convincing thief, especially when dealing with his cohorts, Kirby, Vince and nerdy Meryl. Those poor guys always seemed to get the short end of the stick right up until the movie credits rolled.
I believe Mr. Whitus did an outstanding job with the script, considering the target audience. Children are notorious for short attention spans. Breaking up the storyline with historical facts (in black and white filmed flashbacks) about the chalice was a great way to keep kids engaged in the story/movie. The key is to keep changing it up, while keeping it interesting. I feel Mr. Whitus accomplished both. I thought it was rather clever incorporating a little subtle fact about Peter the Great having drunk from the chalice during his coronation. It helped amp up the value and importance of finding the chalice to those seeking it, thus bringing forth hilarity amongst the bad guys while Sam, Emma and Doug the Dog tried to solve the crime.
Mr. Whitus appeared to have considered the parents too, peppering The Junior Spy Agency with spots of nostalgia. He may also have been trying to educate kids by showing them some “old school” stuff to help expand their horizons. For example, Sam Steele went to the dentist. Ack! Later we see Sam with a wad of cotton under his top lip. He is dressed in a trench coat and wearing his infamous fedora while speaking with his co-detective partner, Emma. I was immediately reminded of Humphrey Bogart and wondered if perhaps Mr. Whitus was somehow paying a tribute to Bogey. A Morse code machine was shown too. They were once used during the spy/war era of yesteryear. I appreciated the added genius of having Mr. Carr, the Russian spy, use the machine to communicate with his connections in Russia about the crystal chalice.
My favorite scene in the movie involved Detective Sam Steele Junior sitting on a bench across the street from Ms. Jenkins’ Fine Antiques & Flea Market, doing surveillance. An elderly man sat next to Sam and gave him a hard time about being too obvious while spying, but in a nice way. The back-and-forth chatter these two characters shared reminded me of a grandpa/grandson bonding time. Made me think of the great wisdom both of my grandfathers gave to me when I was a youngster. It was a very cute, funny scene.
Mr. Whitus included something special that the kids will absolutely love. Bodily functions. You read that right. Bodily functions, particularly those with sound. Not sure why, but kids are often amused by the sight, words, sound…but maybe not so much the smell. A comedic kids’ movie usually sprinkles in a few functions such as burping or passing gas. When passing gas, the dog usually receives the blame….but in The Junior Spy Agency, which dog actually does it? Detective Doug the Dog or another mutt on the scene? Trust me when I say, Mr. Whitus delivers the potty humor in a manner that is humorous, relatable, innocent and most importantly, age appropriate.
The chosen location shots in Indiana and Kentucky fit the film perfectly. From the antique stores, to the cheap motel, to the fancy hotel where it all went down, to the firehouse. I especially loved the shots of the firehouse, because I noticed an actual antique fire engine housed in the bay, along with current rescue vehicles. I’m guessing it was the original engine for that fire company in real life. The set crew did an excellent job on the flashbacks of Russia, as well as present day. Between the music played during those scenes, to the props, a viewer is convinced they are in Russia. Speaking of music, like any good detective movie, there is some great jazz music heard. Kids have an opportunity to hear something other than auto-tune, which I think is a good thing. And, by seeing how a Morse code machine works, they also learn how things were long before the ease and convenience of the internet was born.
I truly enjoyed watching The Junior Spy Agency. So much so, I am going to get a copy of Mr. Whitus’ first installment of the Sam Steele Collection, Sam Steele and the Junior Detective Agency (2009). Most might say after viewing this somewhat campy constable caper, “Well it wasn’t exactly Spy Kids with all of the special effects and pizazz.” To which I would reply, “There is already a Spy Kids. No need to make another.” The Junior Spy Agency is what every kids detective movie should be– creative, clean, inquisitive, fun and leaving the viewer waiting for a new crime to be solved– in the next installment.