Modern writing is all about disclosure, so in that spirit, let me disclose that I'm a lukewarm Jackie Chan fan. He's been in some terrific action and comedy films, notably Rush Hour and The Forbidden Kingdom, but he's also been in a lot of dreck, movies that are just downright stupid, like the Rush Hour sequels, Shanghai Knights, and the worst of the lot, Around the World in 80 Days. He's a successful action star, but not so good at picking projects.
Which brings us to his newest film, The Spy Next Door. One of the first releases of 2010 it's positioned as a sort of kung fu version of Kindergarten Cop, where the running shtick is that he's a super-spy with great martial arts skills, but his cute neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta) and her three children think he's a bumbling salesman. The kids, in fact, are puzzled by why Gillian is dating Bob (Chan), as are we viewers, because there's absolutely zero chemistry between the two of them on screen.
The fundamental problem with The Spy Next Door is that it's more a Jackie Chan movie than a G-rated family film, which is what it appears they started out making. Comic violence is marginally acceptable in a children's action film, but there's a lot of violence in this film, including Jacking slamming a bad guy face down into a coffee table in one scene, and the kids seriously injuring other bad guys in other scenes. What the heck? That's why it got a "PG" rating, I'm sure.
There's a storyline of sorts, but it's rather incidental to the stunts and action sequences, very much a trademark of a Jackie Chan movie, and in this case, it doesn't work. I compare it to the witty Robert Rodriguez film Shorts (see my review) and the difference is that there's no real sense of style, no sense of humor, no narrative cohesion to make this newer film hold together. The most amusing part of the film is the bloopers during the closing credits, which is most assuredly not a good sign.
To be fair, there are some elements that director Brian Levant absolutely nails, including the contemporary dialog of the children. In fact, at one point as Gillian and the children are running out to the car, the older daughter Farren (Madeline Carroll) yells "shotgun!" just to have her brother Ian (Will Shadley) say that it was his turn to be in the front seat. I hear that every week in my family, and I smiled to see it on screen.
The story was one for our modern times too: Gillian is a single mom whose ex has vanished, leaving her not only with her own two children, Ian and Nora (Alina Foley) but with step-daughter Farren, who constantly frets about the situation and sits on the roof of the house, waiting for her real Dad to come and rescue her. Meanwhile, Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) is a spy on loan to the US from the Chinese government and is working with Colton (Billy Ray Cyrus) and Glaze (George Lopez) on an unspecified project.
Problem is, Bob is being sent back to China and has fallen in love with his pretty neighbor and feels he needs to disclose his true profession to her. He wants to get more serious, and she does too, but she feels the children need to warm up to him before they can get more serious. Before he can tell her he's a spy, she's pulled away to Denver on a family emergency and Bob volunteers to babysit the three children while she's gone.
sf/x: <rim shot>
v/o: and so our story is set in motion.
There are some funny lines in the film too, including Chan saying "I brought down dictators, how tough can three kids be?" and another point when his outfit is described by Farren as "fashion armageddon". There are even some great sight gags, like when Chan climbs on Gillian's roof and fixes her satellite dish reception by using his super-spy gear to actually reorient the satellite.
Geeky neighbor Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) asks Nora (Alina Foley) about her Mom.
Still, it just doesn't add up, the story is too incoherent, and the bad guys, Poldark (Magnús Scheving) and his evil gal sidekick Creel (Katherine Boecher) are ghastly bad even in a film that's absolutely full of poor acting.
This is the kind of movie that feels like it started out as an idea for a few sight gags generated over an evening of one bottle of Chardonnay too many, and by the time it ended up in the screening room at the studio, too much money had gone into the production to just axe it. Yes, there are some cute elements to the story and some good action sequences, but it's a Jackie Chan movie awkwardly lobotomized to be what some high-priced producers in Hollywood thought would be appropriate children's fare.
My recommendation? If you're a hard-core Jackie Chan fan, The Spy Next Door will be a good rental or HBO film to record with that handy DVR, but I really wouldn't recommend anyone pay to see it in the theater, and definitely don't take your kids unless they're fine with rather intense "comic violence" that felt a lot too violent for my tastes. Maybe Chan's next film (The Karate Kid remake) will be a keeper.