Having quit the agency former spy kid Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) is more concerned with getting his hands on the world's hottest new console game, 'Game Over.' That is until agency chief Cesca Giggles (Salma Hayek) and her formerly villainous since reformed husband Donovan Giggles (Mike Judge) inform Juni that not only is Game Over part of a scheme to take over the world but his sister Carmen (Alexa Vega) is already imprisoned inside its virtual realm. Armed with a hi-tech suit and all-important 3-D glasses, Juni enters the virtual world where he teams up with a band of young gamers including winsome Demetra (Courtney Jines) on whom he develops a crush. Together the uneasy allies must battle level after level of awesome creatures, deadly death-traps and menacing machines in order to unlock the sinister secret of the Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone).
Six years before James Cameron ignited the 3-D revival in earnest with Avatar (2009), Robert Rodriguez tried his hand with the third Spy Kids film. Right from the expanding Dimension Films logo and elastic credits it is obvious Rodriguez is aiming for an old fashioned, unpretentious "stuff flying at you" 3-D movie. Never mind all that immersive storytelling guff subsequently used to shove this cinematic bugbear down our throats. Sadly, despite a handful of good gags, nifty ideas no amount of 3-D bells and whistles can compensate for the sloppy, shapeless storyline where most of the jokes fall flat, well intentioned morals get muddled and characters appear then disappear at random. Some of Rodriguez's concepts for the game world are cool, as when the kids surf molten lava or battle giant robot apes with lightsabers, but the execution is sloppy. The cartoonish virtual realm has that shiny metallic look a lot of CGI effects had back in the early Noughties. To facilitate the 3-D effects Rodriguez reigns in his usual exuberant camera moves which gives the action a static feel at odds with the premise.
In a bid to humanize a plot that mostly feels like watching some kid play a videogame the film goes overboard with the moralizing. "Family is important. Everyone is your family", says Gerti Giggles (an under-used Emily Osment) in one of several character cameos. Again, the message is well intentioned but clumsily handled and lacks emotional weight. With Alexa Vega's Carmen out of action for most of the plot Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over is more or less a Juni solo adventure. Daryl Sabara proves an enthusiastic but occasionally amateurish lead. He mostly stands around looking bewildered though the stilted dialogue does not help. Part of the problem is that the moral arc of the film does not rest with Juni at all but his crippled grandfather (Ricardo Montalban, relishing a rare late career turn in the spotlight) who bears a grudge against the interestingly conflicted Toymaker. Hammering home the core concept of forgiveness and family, Rodriguez brings back every character from the Spy Kids fold for a busy but clustered climax that plays like a precursor to the similar but superior finale of The Incredibles (2004). The star cameos are not necessarily a problem but are poorly integrated into the plot. Some are welcome but far too sporadic such as Salma Hayek (cute in pigtails), others strangely pointless like Elijah Wood as messianic game hero 'The Guy.' George Clooney snags the most memorable moment however with his end credits outtake lamenting the "end of his career" as he impersonates Stallone.
Ah yes, Stallone. For some reason Rodriguez seems to think Stallone is the new Peter Sellers. Sly is a star of many talents but man of many faces is not one of them. To his credit he really goes for it. Not only does he play the big bad but voices a helpful little robot and portrays the Toymaker's virtual alter-egos including a bald scientist, a wise old hippie type and a barking military man in a Prussian helmet. Stallone tries hard but watching him share philosophical debates with himself is more weird than witty. Still the giant robot Stallone is not something one sees every day. It was eight years before Rodriguez revived the franchise again with the very different Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (2011). Yes, 4D no less.