Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2003) Part One

9. Spy-Kids 3-D: Game Over

Robert Rodriguez knew that, if the “Spy Kids” series was gong to continue, he had to act quickly. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara were already on the percipience of becoming teenagers and no longer being “kids.” So, right after wrapping up “Spy Kids 2,” work began on “Spy Kids 3.” Or, as the original posters described it, “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.” As the subtitle indicates, this was intended to be the end of the series. As the designation indicates, the film was also released in 3-D, a few years before that particular fad would re-establish itself. While the first two films were both critical and commercial successes, the third film would have to be satisfied with just being a commercial success. It made 190 million at the box office, the biggest moneymaker of the series, but the reviews were rotten.

Juni Cortez has retired from the Spy Kid business, according to him. Now working as a juvenile private detective, he's soon informed by the O.S.S. that his sister Carmen has disappeared. She was investigating “Game Over,” a new virtual reality video game created by a mysterious and villainous character called the Toymaker. Her mind is now trapped inside the fourth level of the game. Hoping to save his sister, Juni intentionally allows himself to be uploaded into this digital world. There he teams up with a group of beta players, working together to rescue Carmen and stop the Toymaker before he successfully sets himself free into the waking world.

While the series was sold on its zany, special effects driven comedy, the main driving force behind the “Spy Kids” franchise has always been the relationship between Juni and Carmen. Watching them gain each other's respect, and face off new challenges together, provided the first two installments with heart. “Spy Kids 3” makes a big mistake by separating the siblings for most of the run time. It turns out Juni is not a horribly compelling protagonist by himself. Especially this version, who is intermittently haughty and insecure. By the time Carmen comes back into the story, it's too little, too late.

“Spy Kids 3” ditches the primary gimmick of the series in other ways too. This movie is barely riffing on spy fiction conventions at all. Juni is no longer a secret agent. In this installment, the O.S.S. is not really doing much international spying here. Though they are chasing after a bad guy, there's little in the way of gadgets or espionage. The subtitle might make you assume “Game Over” is shifting its focus to video games. And it's sort of doing that. There’s plenty of talk about levels, lives, enemies, programmers, and power-ups. Yet “Spy Kids 3” doesn't really make fun of video game tropes the way the first two did for spy movies. While the film seems to know the gaming lingo of the time, it doesn't really use these ideas in any interesting way.

It's pretty obvious why Robert Rodriguez would set the third “Spy Kids” movie inside a video game. He clearly saw this movie as more of a technical challenge, than a narrative one. Though he's been skirting the line for a while, with “Game Over,” the director officially pushes his love of green screen too far. The majority of the film takes place in this digital playground. While this is now common for big blockbusters, in 2003, CGI was not that convincing. So the actors weightlessly leap through computer-generated environments, never truly seemingly like they are interacting with each other or the objects around them. This cartoonish quality does not end once we re-enter the real world. The finale has characters flying through the air while fighting unconvincing robot gorillas. The focus is so keenly on the effects, the film disinterested in giving us anything else.

Rodriguez’ fascination with pushing technical boundaries manifest in another way here. Following the tradition of the “Jaws” and “Friday the 13th” franchises, this is another third installment released in 3-D. Rodriguez was actually ahead of the curve here, as another full-blown 3-D revival had begun by 2009. But this isn’t “Avatar.” The 3-D effects are crude. The film makes a point of shoving as much shit into your eyes as possible. Characters conspicuously reach toward the audience. Via pogo sticks, giant springs, and cartoon frogs, cast members fly into our faces. A racing sequence was seemingly designed primarily to shove stuff into our eyes as much as possible. At one point, a whipped cream-like substance covers the foreground. It’s all trying way too hard and is more obnoxious than entertaining.

You would think that, in a film so chocked full of special effects, surely there’s something cool or interesting here. Conceptually, some of the sequences sound fun. How can surfing down a volcanic river while a lava monster throws rocks around be boring? Surely, there’s entertainment value to be gleamed from a cowboy Bill Paxton branding a giant robot. Sadly, the excessive effects are so numbing, very little of it makes an impression. A giant robot fight is probably the film’s nadir, a lifeless and utterly humorless burst of computer generated excess. I don’t even like the few practical effects much either, as the costumes the cast wear are clunky.

In it all, there’s exactly one joke that made me laugh. Throughout the film, the beta players assume Juni to be The Guy, the prophecized video game savior that will lead them to the final level. Just as their belief in Juni is fading, a random guy proclaiming himself to be The Guy enters into the scene. Elijah Wood plays the part at his most gee-whiz, faux-heroic. The scene diffuses in a very funny way, which I won’t spoil. Otherwise, “Game Over” is low in laughs, aside from goofy in-jokes like Ricardo Montalbán mentioning Corinthian leather.

The “Spy Kids” moral about the love of family was already starting to wear thin in the second film. By the third, this note has been hammered so many times, it’s rendered totally meaningless. The only variation is that Juni realizes friends can be family as well. The sequel does include another moral. Through his adventure in the computer world, Juni develops a crush on another player named Demetra. Later, we learn Demetra is a computer program designed to mislead the players. By the end, Juni is given a chance to forgive the girl for her programmed actions. If you didn’t get that the movie was making a point about forgiveness, the climax involves Grandpa Cortez forgiving the Toymaker for his offenses against him. It’s delivered in a very ham-fisted manner, if you couldn’t have guessed.

The subtitle seems to indicate that this will be the epic conclusion for the “Spy Kids” series. The actual film doesn’t include much in the way of finality though. The only acknowledgment that this is the big ending is that nearly every important character from the first two movies returns. Ricardo Montalbán is given a much larger part. However, the plot results in his real life head awkwardly floating above a ridiculous CGI robot body for most of the film.  The climax has Juni calling on nearly every person he’s met. So his parents, grandma, Uncles Machete and Felix, the Giggle siblings, Steve Buscemi, Alan Cummings, Tony Shalhoub and, yes, Bill Paxton rather literally drop out of the sky. A huge series reunion was a nice idea but shoving everybody into the last ten minutes means most of these amount to walk-ons. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara still seem to be taking their characters seriously, at least.

In fact, a lot of “Game Over” is focused on new characters. The plot requires Juni to meet a band of friends in the computer world. It would’ve been easy to make these returning characters but Rodriguez instead thought up new parts. Named Francis, Arnold, and Rez, these new boys are largely indistinguishable from one another. Their role in the plot is largely unimportant as well. At least Courtney Jones as Demetra is a little more memorable, striking a nice balance between tough and vulnerable. Salma Hayek once again also appears in a tiny supporting part, doing nothing of note. Also, a ten year old Selena Gomez makes her feature debut with a small part in the beginning. It’s always sort of fun to see a future star at the beginning of their careers.

These are not the flashiest additions to the film. None other than Sylvester Stallone plays the villainous Toymaker. This was before Sly successfully relaunched the “Rocky” and “Rambo” series, giving his career a much needed shot in the arm. Instead, this was after flops like “Get Carter” and “Drive” had Stallone starring in direct-to-video flicks like “Eye See You” and “Avenging Angelo.” Though his most successful film of this period, “Spy Kids 3” did not revive interest in Sly’s career. It’s a grotesquely hammy performance, Stallone shouting and mugging the whole time. Perhaps this is befitting for a cartoon super villain like the Toymaker but watching Stallone debase himself like this is embarrassing. Furthermore, the movie has Sly playing extensions of the Toymaker’s personality. I love the guy but Sylvester Stallone is not well known for his range. His attempts to play a nerdy scientist or a hippy is cringe inducing.

There is, perhaps, an explanation for why “Spy Kids 3” turned out so shoddy. The film was in production at the same time as “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” It’s easy to imagine the director was a little more focused on ending his other trilogy when working on this one. If this was the case, maybe “Island of Lost Dreams” should’ve been the capper for the Cortez chronicles. Though the 3-D gimmick would make it a box office success, “Spy Kids 3” is a visually tedious and at times incoherent kid flick. The first two were entertaining features but maybe trying to rush out a third installment wasn’t the best idea. [Grade: D+]

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