Brian Levantâ€™s The Spy Next Door is a borrowed movie. It opens with a sequence of scenes borrowed from Jackie Chanâ€™s most famous movies. It borrows its plot from recent semi-successful family films like The Pacifier. Worst of all, it borrows its leading man, keeping him distracted from the good films he should be making.
Itâ€™s very difficult not to adore Jackie Chan in any role that he plays. His broken English, excellent fight choreography, and hilarious one-liners make him one of the most enjoyable action comedy stars working today. However, not even the lovable Chan could salvage the sloppily directed film The Spy Next Door, wherein director Brian Levant once again proves himself inept behind the camera.
Jackie Chan plays Bob Ho, a CIA spy and former Chinese government agent who lives under the cover of an awkward pen distributor. He is nearing retirement and ready to settle down with his neighbor, Gillian, an overwhelmed single mom played by Amber Valetta. Gillianâ€™s three children Farren, Ian, and Nora are fighting against their motherâ€™s relationship with Bob, who they see as a â€œtotal square,â€ and they plan to sabotage it any way they can.
Meanwhile an evil villain (I donâ€™t know how else to describe the simplistic archetype) named Poldark is planning to destroy the worldâ€™s oil supply and believes Bob Ho is the only man who stands in his way. Gillianâ€™s father falls ill and Bob finds himself in charge of babysitting her children, while simultaneously protecting them from the devious Poldark and his minions.
Chan is not a brilliant actor, but he comes across as the only watchable character in the film. His romantic chemistry with co-star Amber Valletta is comically non-existent and you get the sense that they had never met before the first day of shooting. More unwatchable than Valletta is the least believable duo of secret agents ever portrayed, played by the consistently one-note George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus. Each of the two actors delivers groan-inducing one-liners that are obviously funny in their own head. You get the sense that they had to do several takes to keep from laughing at themselves.
Levant is unable to get any kind of authenticity out of his child actors. There are moments between Chan and the children that could have been decent dramatic moments in more capable hands. Instead they come across as forced. Itâ€™s like Levant was directing with the intention of forcing the audience to feel a certain way, rather than making the moments as honest as possible and letting the actors do the rest.
The one-note screenplay by Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer, and Gregory Poirer unfairly glosses over several important sub-plots that could have been interesting. The father of the children involved has somewhat recently packed up and taken off, leaving Gillian heartbroken and forced to fend for herself. This is a relatable and serious subplot that could have added another dimension to the story, were it not treated as a distraction. One of the main problems with family films like The Spy Next Door is that it focuses too much on slapstick and not enough on the real problems that families and children face.
Jackie Chanâ€™s creative and witty fight choreography is here, and at the age of 53, he does not seem to have lost any of his usual energy. However, he is remarkably mismatched in his fight scenes, which makes them uninteresting. Nobody wants to watch Goliath constantly beat up on David. Even if Goliath rattles off one-liners in adorable broken English.
I attended the film at an advanced screening that was filled with families and children of all ages. For the first two-thirds of the film, most of the children were not laughing. The final act picks up speed and seemed to wake up the audience with steady laughs and mild action. Iâ€™ll admit that even I laughed a few times at the ridiculousness as much as anything. However, those few laughs do not make sitting through this 92-minute film worth anybodyâ€™s time.
Bottom Line: When you get to the theatre, see whatâ€™s playing next door to The Spy Next Door.