A film review by Craig J. Koban March 31, 2010


2010, PG, 92 mins.


Bob Ho: Jackie Chan / Gillian: Amber Valletta / Farren: Madeline Carroll / Poldark: Magnus Scheving / Colton: James Billy Ray Cyrus / Glaze: George Lopez / Ian: Will Shadley / Nora: Alina Foley

Directed by Brian Levant / Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer

I have been a staunch Jackie Chan admirer for all of my film-going life.  I also respect him more than any other living actor.  

Why?  Just watch any of his greatest action films (and especially pay close attention to their end credit outtakes) and you’ll see why.  Arguably no other action star has put their very livelihood on the line for the sake of their craft as much as he has.  There are times, in hindsight, when I can’t decide what impressed me the most: the initial sight of the Herculean stunt that the nimble star performed or the near fatal injury that likely resulted from him attempting such a ludicrously extreme scene.

Chan is now approaching 60 and, yes, in some of his recent films he has be unable to perform all of his stunts, but he still nonetheless is a limitlessly dexterous and acrobatic showman at an age when many an Olympic gymnast has long called it a career.  Seeing a past his prime Chan still attempting to wow audiences remains a pleasant and entertaining sight, even when the peril of those stunts may be substantially less severe now.  Even more, Chan’s other chief asset – his infectious and agreeable child-like affability – has not diminished at all: Even when he is saddled in many a cinematic stinker, the star always brings his easy-going, goofy charisma and good cheer to the proceedings. 

Unfortunately, no amount of good cheer and innate likeability that Chan can deliver cannot save his latest attempt at further breaking into the American mainstream film business.  THE SPY NEXT DOOR is terminally unfunny, unexciting, immediately disposable and forgettable family action comedy that manages to slavishly borrow the storylines from both TRUE LIES and THE PACIFIER.  Chan’s film lifts the suburban everyman that just happens to be a super, secret spy story angle from James Cameron’s action opus and it appropriates the premise of a big-name action icon that becomes a babysitter for a bunch of bratty kids from the Vin Diesel comedy.  Both THE PACIFIER and THE SPY NEXT DOOR have tough and rugged good guys that are forced to man up and look after bitchy and whinny kids while saving the world from foreign oppressors.  Although THE PACIFIER was not the zenith of family entertainment, it generated legitimate laughs and interest with its material.  By comparisons, THE SPY NEXT DOOR is a derivative comic wasteland where the sound of silence in the theatre muffles whatever modest chuckles are there. 

Comic desperation begins right from the get-go: The film makes one of the more unpardonable movie mistakes involving character names – funny names are rarely funny.  Chan stars as Bob Ho (not Hope, but with Chan’s broken English, it sure sounds like Hope…hardy-har-har) who is a top international CIA spy that lives as a semi-dweeby, Clark Kent-ish alter ego away from that life in the suburbs (another part of his cover is that he is a pen importer).  When on the job he is hot on the heels of a Russian terrorist named Poldark (Magnus Scheving) and he does indeed capture him during the opening scene.  After that we witness Bob's budding relationship with a gorgeous divorcee of three, Gillian (the very lovely and easy on the eyes Amber Valletta).  Things between them are getting very serious, and she does indeed care deeply for Bob, but there is one nagging problem: her inordinately bratty kids (Madeline Carroll, Will Shandley, and Alina Foley respectively) hate Bob and want to have nothing to do with him. 

Nonetheless, Bob proposes to Gillian, but she very politely refuses…at least for the time being.  She sees her children as one last obstacle that Bob has to overcome to completely win her over.  Bob understands, but feels disappointed, but he decides that he will endure anything to win the woman of his dreams for a lifetime of happiness, even if it means retiring from the spy gig forever (she is not aware of his day job).  Of course, the highly convenient storyline offers up one of the laziest of plot devices to separate a mother from her kids (a medical emergency with her father), which means that, yup, Bob agrees to look after her little hellions while she is gone, which takes a mournfully predictable toll on Bob’s sanity.  Even worse is that his arch-nemesis has escaped Federal custody and knows where Bob is, leading to a painfully inevitable showdown at Gillian’s family home. 

There is not one iota of personality, charm, or inventiveness in THE SPY NEXT DOOR: It’s idea of novelty is to appropriate every lame and stale genre contrivance and cliché from these types of action-hero-turned-desperate nanny films to the point of ad nausuem...and frequent watch checking.  We have Bob learning all the ways of parenthood, from ill attempts at cooking, putting the kids to bed, clothes shopping, dealing with aimlessly wandering pre-schoolers, and confronting the young teen girl that suffers from abandonment issues from her dad’s departure that you just know will be eventually consoled by Bob.  Nothing that happens in the film will be a surprise.   

Exasperating things even more is the film’s annoying attempts hurtling cartoonish and infantile sight gags that are accentuated by the broad performances and a music score that could have found a home in any Loony Tunes animated short.  Considering that the film is directed by Brain Levant - a director that previously made family stinkers like THE FLINTSTONES, JINGLE ALL THE WAY, and one of the worst sequels of all-time in PROBLEM CHILD 2 – it’s no surprise at all to witness his failed attempts at generating laughs in this film.  Then we are inundated by some would-be funny cameo performances, like one by George Lopez (as Bob’s higher up at the CIA) that never once harnesses the comedian's gifts to proper effect, and – wait for it – Billy Ray Cyrus as Bob’s hillbilly-minded, wise-cracking CIA partner.  If there has ever been a less convincing CIA operative in the history of the movies…please let me know. 

Then there is Chan himself, who shows what a resoundingly good sport he is here when being forced to slum his way through many a misfired gag.  The film, however, does not play up to Chan’s chief strengths as a performer: there are far too many scenes of him trying to feign emotional sincerity when he is not smiling and mugging the camera.  This, of course, is not assisted by his often-mangled attempts at the English language (when he’s playing serious scenes opposite of Valletta or the kids, it appears less emotionally resonating than it does like he’s just trying to read off of cue cards).  Yet, the only watchable element of Chan here is allowed to get creative with the action set pieces (most of which have been hampered down by the PG rating).  Watch, for example, how he makes the seemingly simple gesture of removing his shirt, sweater, and sport coat all in one smooth and slick move look graceful, or the way he makes a typical throwaway moment of removing a gun from a villain all the more unique and creative (he does it with just his feet).  There are other moments of invention, like when he uses a bike and a folding chair to lethal effect in a fight, or a modest scene where he defies gravity to climb up a house to rescue a cute little kitten.  Chan takes routine moments in action and does something with to make them special.  He also proves - even with the obvious assistance of wire work and some CGI tinkering - that he’s still got it. 

The film around him, alas, does not got it at all.  I think if you’re, say, between the ages of 5 and 6, then THE SPY NEXT DOOR will be enjoyable; it’s a safe, unassuming, and non-threatening child-centric entertainment.  If you’re an adult and/or a Chan purist, then the film will be an aggravating endurance test.  The film does have one great scene: its introductory montage that has clips of fights and stunts from the Chan film canon of high esteem and value.  All this montage seems to prove is that watching a few minutes of clips from the best of Chan is more thrilling and involving than seeing him wasted in a paint-by-numbers, direct-to-video-worthy family entertainment.   

And, by the way, when did someone decide that seeing bloopers at the end of Chan’s films featuring his bungled line readings were more enjoyable than seeing his bungled stunts?  Using his questionable grasp of English for the sake of puerile laughs in the blooper reel seems really cheap and desperate…kind of like most of THE SPY NEXT DOOR

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