With Jackie Chan, Billy Ray Cyrus, George Lopez. Rated PG for sequences of action violence and some mild rude humor. 92 minutes.
There’s every reason in the world to dismiss THE SPY NEXT DOOR out-of-hand, beginning with its premise. This is yet another movie in which a father or father-figure is saddled with misbehaving kids and is made to look like a fool. Rightfully, this ought to be on the short list of hackneyed storylines that Hollywood permanently retires.
Jackie Chan is Bob Ho, a Chinese secret agent who has been on permanent loan to the CIA. Why China should cooperate with the CIA is not explained, but for those who insist on logic, Poldark (Magnús Scheving), the bad guy, is Russian so at least there’s a common rival. What the Russians are up to really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that after helping capture Poldark, Bob is ready to retire.
What he really wants to do is marry Gillian (Amber Valletta), the perky single mom next door. When Gillian has to leave to tend to her ailing father, Bob volunteers to take care of her three kids, in hopes of winning them over. Instead they conspire to drive him crazy and break up the relationship. Hilarity allegedly ensues as he deals with squabbling siblings and has to master such complex tasks as making breakfast.
It’s during this part of the movie that parents are advised to head out to the concession stand. However, through another plot contrivance, Poldark’s secret plans end up on the iPod of one of the kids and so now deadly Russian spies are after them. Bob has to go on the run with the kids to keep them alive and though the story is absurd, he now gets to play to his undeniable strengths.
In protecting the kids he gets to do the martial arts and acrobatic stunt work for which he is justifiably famous, mixing thrills with laughs. Chan, who turns 55 in April, is in good shape although one suspects he’s relying a bit more on editing and stunt doubles than he might have in the past. However much of it is actually him doing it, that part of the film will be pleasing for his fans.
The other thing Chan has going for him is his charm. What comes across on screen is a genuinely likeable guy who enjoys connecting with people. In one scene he’s trying to put the youngest girl to bed and is at a loss what to do. He ends up singing her a Chinese lullaby and it comes across as a warm and genuine moment. When the oldest girl gets the attention of a dashing college student (she’s considerably younger) his reactions are funny but not over-the-top in protecting her, at least until the plot requires otherwise.
By film’s end we still have to deal the spy plot, which comes to include his former associates (Billy Ray Cyrus, George Lopez), but Chan has managed to look silly without losing his dignity, and may win over grumpy adults dragged into to see this despite themselves. “The Spy Next Door” is inane, but Jackie Chan manages to make it bearable.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.