In The Adam Project, a disposable Netflix feature probably watched by a squillion people earlier this year despite a plot so contorted it was basically a sleep aid, young actor Walker Scobell played a kid bruised by the inattention of a workaholic dad who then died, compounding the hurt. The boy’s perception shifted after a time-space wormhole brought him face to face with his grownup self, also shedding light on his father’s integrity. Scobell again plays a disgruntled son given a sci-fi shakeup in another empty-calorie adventure, Secret Headquarters, though it’s perhaps a small mercy this time that instead of Ryan Reynolds cracking wise we get the mellower Owen Wilson alternative.
Developed from a story by co-screenwriter and frequent Marvel hired hand Christopher Yost, the film was originally slated as a Paramount theatrical release before being bumped to Paramount+ on the same date. It’s a surprisingly toothless entry from the normally flashier, more testosterone-fueled factory of Jerry Bruckheimer Films — not terrible but thoroughly undistinguished, its script laced with humor that seldom lands. Unless you find constant fanny-pack jokes a scream.
The Bottom Line
As basic as its title.
Audiences around the age of the young teen-hero protagonists are likely the best bet for a movie that seems destined to follow the quick-consumption, zero-aftertaste pattern of co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s 2020 Netflix original, Project Power. However, that similarly high-concept ‘90s throwback (also billed as “A Henry & Rel Film”) was a more dynamic effort overall, elevated by a sparky cast. This one, not so much.
Written by Yost, Josh Koenigsberg, Joost and Schulman, Secret Headquarters starts with a prologue in which Wilson’s devoted dad Jack Kincaid interrupts a camping trip with his wife Lily (Jessie Mueller) and 4-year-old son Charlie (Louie Chaplin Moss) to hop in his battered VW van and rush to the scene of an aerial collision that crashes down deep in the woods of Wherever, USA.
Still stunned from the impact, Air Force Captain Sean Irons (Jesse Williams) leads Jack to the crash site, where the hatch of an alien spacecraft opens, disgorging a glowing orb later identified as “The Source,” which conveniently speaks like any standard American computerized female voice assistant. (Yay! Gender bias is interplanetary!) Hovering in front of each man’s face, the Source first rejects beat-up Irons as a host before settling on Jack, confirming “Guardian accepted.”
Ten years later, 14-year-old Charlie (Scobell) is morosely accustomed to his now absentee dad missing birthdays and most other occasions. But he finds distraction as a fanatical follower of a mystery figure known as The Guard, who pops up frequently in news reports, thwarting disasters all over the world. Ansel Argon (Michael Peña), the smarmy head of a defense corporation whose weapons sales are down because of the Guard’s heroics, is not a fan. Argon has put Irons on his payroll in an attempt to identify the Guard and access his power source.
All this is like very diluted vintage Spielberg-meets-Zemeckis, especially once the kids become the story’s center. Jack and Lily are now living separately, and when Charlie finagles his way into staying at his dad’s house alone when the latter is called off on an “I.T. work emergency,” the boy invites his best friend Berger (Keith L. Williams) over to play with his new Nintendo Switch. But Berger decides to make it a party by extending the invitation to narcissistic social media slave Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon) and her more coolly sophisticated friend Maya (Momona Tamada), a major crush for Charlie since before she went away for an extended period as a foreign exchange student.
But the intended “rager” takes an unexpected turn when the teens stumble on a hidden elevator that sends them plummeting to a tricked-out basement way below ground, later described as Charlie’s dad’s “sci-fi man cave.” The multilevel hideout is equipped with hi-tech gadgetry like magnetic wands, power bracelets and invisibility donuts. Don’t ask. There are also superhero suits, jetpacks, a now extremely souped-up, armored version of the VW and 3D printers capable of making anything these 21st century Goonies can dream up.
Computer monitors displaying a mission history that Charlie recognizes from news coverage of the Guard allow his friends to put two and two together and figure out that Jack is the mystery superhero. Charlie himself is a little harder to convince, considering his dad too much of a deadbeat to have such a cool shadow life.
At first, the kids put their new alien-technology toys to use at school in creative ways, from cheating on exams to super-charging Charlie’s pitching arm on the baseball field. But the fun turns threatening when Argon and his henchmen trace the Source and turn up determined to claim it at any cost. The clash starts in the secret headquarters, with Jack returning just in time to get involved, and then ends up back at school during a moon-themed dance.
Pretty much every climactic development and emotional resolution can be seen coming, from Irons’ redemption as a good guy to Charlie overcoming his shyness with Maya and his fractured family turning out to be whole all along. And of course once the kid acknowledges that his dad had a good excuse to be focused elsewhere for the past decade, he also discovers that Jack’s love for him has never diminished.
With less pedestrian writing, there might have been some genuine uplift in the outcome of a family reinforcing its bonds while taking on future missions as a unified team. But Secret Headquarters is mostly just meh. Even when they’re showing a willingness to be kid-killers, Argon and his goons are too bland to be much of a menace, and the rote fights between Jack and Argon, both in Tron-type hardware suits, don’t pack much excitement.
Scobell and Tamada are appealing, especially once Charlie and Maya get to show their tactical resourcefulness against their foes. But the rest of the cast — including Kezii Curtis as Berger’s older brother Big Mac — is hampered by having to carry the humor load of a lame script. Wilson does his usual shtick with minimal effort, Williams is wasted in a thankless role, likewise the gifted stage performer Mueller, while poor Peña gets stuck with unfunny comedy bits and woeful dialogue, at one point telling a kid, “You remind me of a fart.”
This movie reminded me of countless other movies, but has the flavor or personality of none of them. It’s innocuous enough, but also a secret not worth keeping.