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So long, spies

With an all-out assault on senses, kids bid adieu

The average amusement park ride is between two and three minutes long Ñ although it certainly seems much longer than that when you're screaming your way through the loops and plunging over the curves. But the brilliant minds who design roller coasters know that three minutes is about as much intense stimulation as the brain can take before either irritation or boredom sets in, and they create their rides accordingly.

Robert Rodriguez's third and final 'Spy Kids' movie, 'Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over,' is an interactive onscreen coaster ride Ñ loud , colorful, constantly moving and, in the beginning, fairly exciting. But Rodriguez failed to grasp what coaster designers have known for years: that nonstop stimulus of this nature can't go on for more than an hour straight without making the riders very, very cranky.

The non-3-D beginning of the film is charming, as we catch up with young Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara), now an ex-agent working on his own as a gumshoe. There's a lot of promise in this segment, with Juni playing the hard-boiled private eye, jaded and discouraged by the spy business; had the movie continued in this vein of film noir parody, it could have been delightful.

But when Juni is pulled back into the spy game to save his sister, Carmen (Alexa Vega), from the clutches of evil cybercriminal the Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone), he has to enter a virtual-reality video game Ñ and so the 3-D nightmare begins, complete with those flimsy, headache-inducing, red-blue glasses. Soon the plot's taken a back seat to flashing lights and woozy special effects, and there's nothing to do but white-knuckle it until the final titles roll.

To his credit, Rodriguez's state-of-the-art combination of computer graphics and 3-D technology is mighty impressive. But like virtually every film that's attempted to put a live character into a computer game, Rodriguez's game mechanics make no sense. It's impossible to care if Juni makes it through the bouncing pogo sticks, robot fight or the spiffy 'Tron'-like car race because there's no sense that he actually has to beat the game; the endless set pieces are designed purely to showcase all the technical bells and whistles, with nary a whisper of genuine suspense.

Also absent from 'Spy Kids 3-D' is the one thing that made the first two films so watchable Ñ the bickering interplay between siblings Carmen and Juni. With Carmen's mind trapped on Level Four of the video game, Juni doesn't meet up with her until 20 minutes before the film's end; instead, he's assisted by his grandfather (Ricardo Montalban), who gets to leave his wheelchair and stand tall in virtual reality as a Transformer-like Super Grandpa.

In fact, Montalban is the best thing about 'Spy Kids 3-D,' despite the fact that he disappears without explanation for long stretches of time. And his scenes with his arch nemesis the Toymaker are the best thing about Stallone's appearance in this film. Hammy and ridiculous, Stallone's not just the villain but also the villain's three imaginary alter egos, and he plays them all as if he just wandered in off the street and didn't have time to rehearse.

Without the 3-D gimmick, there wouldn't be any reason to bother with Rodriguez's ultimate 'Spy Kids' movie, although for a generation of kids who never got to enjoy matinee fodder like 'House of Wax,' the gimmick itself may be thrill enough.

But parents be warned Ñ even at a mercifully short running time of 85 minutes, this ride may leave you with double vision and a king-size headache.