Prescott Academy – a secret government run school training girls from infancy to be superspies – sends its number one Agent, Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) to apprehend rogue arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) unaware that Agent 83 has developed a burgeoning fascination with life outside the service. When she successfully completes her assignment but is forced to abandon her exit strategy, Agent 83 takes the opportunity to disappear. Declared MIA, Agent 83 applies her skills to creating a new identity for herself: Megan Walsh, exchange student. But when Victoria Knox escapes, she is determined to track down Agent 83 for revenge and nothing stops you fitting in at High School like an international assassin trying to kill you.
The title “Barely Lethal” – which is a queasily distasteful porn-evoking pun (I’m looking at you, Producer Brett Ratner) – does the film no favours at all. Its content may make it sound a bit like a cheap and cheerful knock off of “Hanna” but it’s much more light-hearted and fun. In fact, it’s probably as close to a live action “Kim Possible” as you can get without committing copyright infringement.
Like the new kid trying to fit in at a new school, “Barely Lethal” tries too hard to be too many things. It’s part action spy caper, part high school comedy without ever committing to either. It lacks the courage to go the full “Kick Ass” route, so Steinfeld’s Agent 83/ Megan is always restrained by the PG nature of the film.
The pacing is kind of off, with it pivoting back and forth between the two genres just as it starts to build some momentum. The action is okay, although the fights are nothing spectacular they’re competently done even though the stunt doubles do most of the heavy lifting. The tone suffers too, with the uneasy adlibbed comedy of Rob Huebel in a throwaway dad role sitting awkwardly alongside the more generic teen dramedy of Proms, parties and mean girls. Nothing, though, is as out of place as the creepy recurring joke of Dan Fogler’s Mr Drumm, the biology teacher with an unhealthily predatory interest in Cash (Toby Sebastian), the school’s most popular guy.
It’s the likeable cast that rescue it from being a complete disaster. Steinfeld is eminently watchable in nearly everything she does and she’s supported here by likeable turns from Thomas Mann (“Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” and Dove Cameron. “Game Of Thrones”’ Sophie Turner is underused as Agent 83’s rival spy and Jessica Alba is good value in what is effectively a glorified cameo. Samuel L Jackson, on the other hand, turns up more often than you might expect and seems to be having a great time sending up his gruff Nick Fury persona, especially when he’s shown training the tiny tots in the delicate art of bomb disposal.
There are moments where the film shows how good it could have been: flashes of ironic self-awareness as Agent 83 uses “Mean Girls” and “Beverly Hills 90210” to research and prepare her mission profile for fitting into high school but they’re too fleeting and infrequent to help. With a slightly harder edge and the courage to really go for the premise this movie, produced by RKO Pictures – the small independent production company that’s all that remains of the mighty Golden Age studio – could have been something special, instead of feeling like a made for TV Disney Original movie (albeit a pretty good one). It’s still fun, enjoyable, family viewing but whether it’s the mission debriefing or the end of term report, it still reads the same: ‘Must Try Harder’.