There was a time around a decade ago when it seemed Jackie Chan would’ve done anything for a blockbuster career in America. The paychecks for the “Rush Hour” films were sweet, but “The Tuxedo” arrived in 2002 and knocked the wind out of Chan’s goofball sails.
“The Spy Next Door” feels like the long aborted next step to his once excitable career plan, furthering him down a path of dreary, by-the-numbers action entertainment that merely requires Chan to stand in front of the camera, smile, flip, and mangle the English language.
Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) is an international superspy hot on the trail of Russian terrorist Poldark (Magnus Scheving), announcing this arrest will be his last job bustin’ bad guys. Looking forward to a peaceful life with neighbor/girlfriend Gillian (Amber Valletta), Bob learns he must win over her three children (Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, and Alina Foley) before any marriage plans could be considered.
When Gillian leaves town on a medical emergency, it’s up to Bob to babysit the kids, learning the depths of their disapproval the hard way as he tries to stay one step ahead of their pranks and troublemaking while maintaining his cover as a mild-mannered pen salesman. However, all bets are off when Poldark breaks out of prison, out to get Bob and execute his nefarious plans to manipulate the world’s oil supply.
Admittedly, I’ve never been an admirer of Jackie Chan. Finding the majority of his pictures excruciatingly one-note and always unfunny, Jackie Chan has always registered as a baffling figure of cult admiration, with the majority of his fame coming more from his bruising martial-art ways than any substantial presentation of compelling storytelling. “The Spy Next Door” doesn’t challenge the stagnant Chan legacy in the least, instead leaning on the actor’s established moves to erect another action-comedy, though this round has been molded especially for the wee ones.
Taking the enormous grosses for Vin Diesel’s “The Pacifier” as gospel, “The Spy Next Door” reworks the tough-guy-as-nanny routine for Chan’s special way with choreography and slapstick, bringing notoriously robotic family filmmaker Brian Levant (“Snow Dogs,” “Are We There Yet?,” “Jingle All the Way”) in to oversee the silliness.
Levant directs as expected: obviously and obnoxiously, shining as bright a spotlight as possible on Chan’s established persona. While the laughs are nonexistent and the film generally creates more of a headache than a feeling of moviegoing satisfaction, I was taken aback by the dusty routine of it all. Levant just runs through the paces with Chan, ticking off the comedy and brutality beats as if he were brainstorming a grocery list.
“The Spy Next Door” does provide the customary beatings and wire-enhanced action choreography Chan is known for. Now fiftysomething, Chan can’t quite muster the same thunderbolts of fist-forward firepower and gravity-defying wizardry as he once could, but the beloved performer engages in agreeable mayhem when the moment calls for it.
A majority of the picture is devoted to Bob learning the ways of parenthood, through the rigors of breakfast preparation, dealing with wandering pre-schoolers, and confronting a particularly itchy tween with profound parental abandonment issues. Here, Chan works his mugging to 3-D lengths, delivering the domestic dumbbell routine with traditional bewilderment, following Levant’s unimaginative lead (which often includes cartoon sound effects) like an obedient puppy.
When the violence arrives, “The Spy Next Door” livens up some, giving nosepickers something to cheer on as Bob winds his way around the villains, using everyday objects and his cache of 007-inspired spy tools to thump around Poldark’s Russian brutes. It’s the same old Chan routine of 1-2-3 staging, only tweaked here with a distinct Hanna-Barbera tone that keeps “The Spy Next Door” safe for children, but less invigorating for Chan purists or, and God bless ’em, parents forced to accompany their kids to this thing.
Indeed, the picture contains a moment where one of the Russians is smacked in the face with a door, resulting in some post-smash cross-eyes and the spitting of fake teeth. Take that as a test of your moviegoing patience. You could give 90 minutes of your life to a mummified, harebrained Jackie Chan effort, or perhaps the time would be better spent avoiding this lazy nonsense, therefore encouraging Chan to create something of actual artistic merit during his rare trips to Hollywood.