While Secret Headquarters looks surprisingly great and has two terrific lead performances, it suffers from a severe lack of identity and never truly knows what it wants to be.
Jerry Bruckheimer hasn’t fared well with family films. Kangaroo Jack was a critical and commercial failure, while G-Force, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and The Lone Ranger have quickly been forgotten. Anything that isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean or National Treasure hasn’t worked for families (critically and commercially), and their latest attempt at starting a franchise, Secret Headquarters, also doesn’t work.
Initially slated for a theatrical release, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s superhero/adventure film was relegated to Paramount+ earlier this summer, and one could see why. While some aspects of the movie are decent enough, the overall picture still has plenty of issues, starting with the sole fact that it has no idea what it wants to be. The plot is perhaps too predictable: fourteen-year-old Charlie Kincaid (Walker Scobell) wants to spend more time with his father (Owen Wilson), who is always away at work. However, what Charlie doesn’t know is that his dad is actually a superhero named The Guard, whose looks and flying suit are totally not robbed from Iron Man.
Charlie discovers that his father is The Guard when his friends accidentally reveal the superhero’s secret headquarters (the movie does a good job at delivering on its title), underneath his dad’s house. After messing around with some of The Guard’s technology, Argon Tactical CEO Ansel Argon (Michael Peña) picks up a signal coming from The Guard’s G-Mobile. He assembles a team of mercenaries to take down The Guard at his house and retrieve a McGuffin aptly named “The Source,” only for him to realize that he is fighting against a group of kids.
By then, you can probably guess where the movie is heading—Charlie making up for lost time with his father by teaming up with him to take down Ansel, for the inevitable ending when the two of them become a team, which sets up a sequel in the process. I’ve seen too many of these franchise-starting films to know exactly where it goes without even watching the whole thing. I knew right when Charlie discovers that his dad is The Guard that the film would end that way, and it did, without fault. But I don’t necessarily blame the movie for being too predictable—as most family films follow the same structure repeatedly. And it wouldn’t be as bad if everything else worked, but the film has a core problem that makes it stick out like a sore thumb.
Does it want to be a discount version of Iron Man? Or The Goonies meets G-Force? It’s never clear. Christopher L. Yost, Josh Koenigsberg, Joost, and Schulman’s script change genres and aesthetic inspirations all the time, that Secret Headquarters ultimately feels like a mesh of better movies cut together into the most uninspired attempt at franchise filmmaking possible. It doesn’t help that the film’s main attraction, the action scenes, aren’t that well choreographed and filled with poorly rendered VFX shots. There are a couple of superhero flourishes that work, but the film never fully leans into the “superhero” aspect of its premise and focuses too much on the kids fooling around with alien technology than trying to learn something about The Guard, or why Charlie’s father took on the mantle while he could’ve had a stable life with his family. It focuses on the wrong thing, which is the bad guys trying to retrieve the source and play a game of cat-and-mouse with the kids. Because of this, Secret Headquarters ultimately fails at being a piece of compelling entertainment, even if there are some aspects of it that are fine.
For instance, cinematographer Larry Fong can make any movie look good and works his magic here. It isn’t his best work, sure, but he gives the film much-needed visual geography for its uninspired action scenes to look somewhat decent. He uses a lot of crash zooms here, and they are all terrifically exciting (and effective!). The trailers don’t do his work justice, but Fong has continuously proved why he’s one of the best (if not the best) cinematographers working today. I’m confident that he could make the worst movie of all time look like a work of art. That’s how talented he is.
And the chemistry between Walker Scobell, Owen Wilson, and the other child actors (Keith L. Williams, Momona Tamada, Abby James Witherspoon and Kezii Curtis) is on top form. Scobell adds another great performance to his resume, after previously starring in The Adam Project last March with Ryan Reynolds, and now ready to become the next Percy Jackson on Disney+. He’s got a bright career ahead of him, and after seeing this movie, he will do a great job as Percy Jackson for sure. Wilson is billed as the film’s top star, but leaves the picture for a good 45 minutes, and the dynamic between the different kids and Ansel starts to take form. Wilson and Peña do a decent job with the material they’re given, but they’re not as fun to watch as Scobell and his child counterparts.
The kids are the real stars of Secret Headquarters, even if the movie itself doesn’t know what it wants to be. And while it is decently shot and acted, it’s not a movie that I (or anyone watching) will remember that they’ve seen in their lifetimes. Yes, it sets up a sequel near the end, but let’s be honest here: will it ever see the light of day? If we look at the Jerry Bruckheimer track record for potential family-friendly adventure franchises, there’s a good chance that Secret Headquarters will be the first and last installment of the series.
Secret Headquarters is now streaming on Paramount+.