Some ideas are so simple they end up being film titles, such as Secret Headquarters, which hits Paramount Plus on Aug. 12.
Based on an original screenplay by Christopher L. Yost (Cowboy Bebop), Secret Headquarters was directed by Project Power’s Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and written by Joost, Schulman, Christopher Yost, and Josh Koenigsberg. Owen Wilson headlines as Jack Kincaid, who gets introduced alongside wife Lily (Jessie Mueller) and son Charlie (Louie Chaplin Mosse) in a concise flashback sequence featuring aerial pursuits, injured Air Force pilots, and flying saucers, culminating in Jack being entrusted with an unlimited power.
From the outset, this is pure wish-fulfillment with smatterings of family dysfunction, as 10 years on a teenage Charlie (Walker Scobell) is now split between parents. With his father permanently waylaid by work commitments and a birthday looming, Secret Headquarters makes light work of laying solid narrative foundations.
The main teenage principals include Maya (Momona Tamada), Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon), Berger (Keith L. Williams) and his brother Big Mac (Kezii Curtis), each of whom bring their own contribution to the group dynamic, ensuring the quartet remains engaging throughout.
Having been dropped off to spend some time with Jack for his birthday, the film quickly gets Wilson offscreen to focus on Charlie and his friends instead. Ultimately, Secret Headquarters is a star vehicle for Scobell, who held his own opposite Ryan Reynolds recently in The Adam Project. That being said, although the film might owe a large debt to Robert Rodriguez and his Spy Kids franchise, it has more to offer than some savvy nods to genre staples.
From the moment that Charlie discovers Jack has an underground operations room beneath his cabin, we venture into mid-level Marvel territory, even if the complexity might not be there for a straightforward comparison. Although the affable Wilson is barely onscreen for a large chunk of the running time, he does enough to sell the premise by harboring an alien artifact from prying eyes, having been selected by off-world interlopers early on.
Only arms manufacturer Ansel Argon (Michael Peña) offers any real sense of threat. With his ragtag band of paid mercenaries trying to track down the “source,” Secret Headquarters was never going to offer audiences anything taxing. The deepest underlying message it tries to convey is one of optimism, where everybody has a chance to be heroic, if not superhuman.
However, where things really comes to life is through its teenage cast, who are handed some decent dialogue and reasonably rounded character progressions. In truth, they might not be the most original arcs imaginable, but this young adult ensemble pulls it off with buckets of charm to spare.
Standouts above and beyond Scobell include Tamada’s Maya, who proves equally resourceful in a cliched yet fun-filled finale. Witherspoon’s Lizzie also attempts to match her contemporary, but comes unstuck being hampered by the role of teenage victim to her would-be assailant, a fact which undermines her contribution, and at times means the film suffers from one too many cliches.
Amongst the adult cast (aside from Wilson and Peña), only Jesse Williams really makes an impact as turncoat Air Force pilot Captain Sean Irons. Although he may be familiar to some from his extended time on Grey’s Anatomy, in Secret Headquarters, his influence is small but crucial as he has a moral epiphany, which requires his character to step up, take responsibility, and grow as a person later on.
Beyond that, and some reasonably impressive visual effects, Secret Headquarters feels like Marvel-lite with splashes of dysfunctional drama thrown in. On the face of it, that’s no bad thing, because this Paramount Plus original never drags, and gets by on charm and some smart story choices. With the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer involved, audiences can expect more than a little polish to this piece of entertainment, which goes some way towards establishing the new streaming service.
With original features including Honor Society and television shows such as Mayor of Kingstown, Paramount Plus will soon emerge from its fledgling stage and become a force to be reckoned with. Secret Headquarters represents an important step on that journey, as it should appeal to a wide audience of subscribers looking for something new.
'Secret Headquarters' is aimed squarely at young adults, takes a leaf from the 'Spy Kids' franchise, and is never less than engaging when affectionately leaning into genre cliches without trying too hard.