IT’S SAFE TO SAY THAT I will never be mistaken for the world’s biggest Jackie Chan fan.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like the man or his movies; I just haven’t seen much of his work. His Shanghai films with Owen Wilson and his Rush Hour trilogy with Chris Tucker passed me by (I’ve been busy raising a family and all that), and I’ve been meaning to get to his supposedly classic Drunken Master films but haven’t done so yet. In fact, my only exposure to Chan on film is his brief cameo in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and his completely non-English role in The Cannonball Run, a movie I watched numerous times on HBO as a kid.
Which brings us to Chan’s latest US film (until his Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith hits theaters next month), The Spy Next Door…
Bob Ho (Chan) has been dating his neighbor, single mom Jillian (Amber Valletta) – much to the chagrin of her three kids: 13-year-old Farren (Madeline Carroll), 7-year-old Ian (Will Shadley), and 4-year-old Nora (Alina Foley). They see Bob as a square with an equally lame job as a pen importer. But what Jillian and the kids don’t know is that Bob is actually an international spy, who’s planning to retire after his latest mission, in which he succeeds in capturing Russian baddie Poldark (Magnus Scheving).
When Jillian must leave town to care for her hospitalized father, she puts Bob in charge of her kids – again, much to their chagrin. While the kids are creating all sorts of mayhem to drive Bob crazy, Poldark escapes from custody and plans to destroy the world’s oil supply – causing Bob’s partner at CIA headquarters, Colt (Billy Ray Cyrus) to ask Bob to help with the case for old time’s sake. Bob agrees and tells Colt to send him secret codes linked to Poldark’s oil-destroying formula, but Ian downloads them from Bob's computer to his iPod, thinking they’re files to a rare bootlegged concert. Poldark sends his men to find Bob and the downloaded codes, leaving Bob to run (and fight) for his life, as well as those of the kids.
I find it baffling that The Spy Next Door is not a Disney creation (it was released by Lionsgate), because it feels a great deal like one – as if it could be one of those made-for-Disney-Channel films featuring some of the Mouse House’s up-and-rising tween stars (Ian even makes a Selena Gomez reference).
Much of the dialogue and its delivery are tough to sit through, especially some of the lines coming from the kids. The script (which required three screenwriters) feeds the kids forced jokes with references that no kids their ages would say in real life (especially the overabundance of stilted one-liners given to Shadley; sorry, bud).
Moving from dialogue to dialect: Scheving’s Russian accent for Poldark, as well Katherine Boecher’s as femme fatale Tatiana, are woefully cartoonish. I mean, I half expected Boris and Natasha to show up as co-conspirators.
In terms of the cast: I’m surprised Chan’s struggle with articulate English hasn’t improved in the last 30 years. (Even Schwarzenegger honed his chops over time.) Still, it’s truly amazing to see 55-year-old Chan move during the action sequences (which prompted me to put his two Drunken Master films in my Netflix queue before I began this review). Cyrus does fine as Chan’s sidekick, with his down-home euphemisms and analogies. And Carroll (who’s already an acting veteran at age 14) outperforms Chan and rises above the material on several occasions.
Since my boys are the same age as Ian and Nora, I can appreciate Spy on a certain level. In fact, part of me applauds Bob for putting spy cameras around the house and sticking a tracking device on Nora. And I did laugh at a sequence where Farren and Ian feed Nora spoonfuls of sugar to keep her wired and awake at night in an attempt to drive Bob crazy.
Yet as a dad, I take umbrage with some of the basic, clichéd situations in Spy concerning men and children. Hey, look: It’s a man who can’t cook! And he’s bad with disciplining the kids! It also seems a bit odd that wacky, upbeat music accompanies a scene where Bob loses 4-year-old Nora in a shopping mall. I know this is a comedy, but I defy you to show me a parent who thinks losing their child in a mall would be funny.
Truthfully, I was fighting to stay invested with The Spy Next Door for most of the first hour. But then, a strange thing happened around the 60-minute mark: I realized that the movie wasn’t made for me – it was made for an audience the same age as the kids in the film, or at least the two older ones. Once I used that as a barometer, the rest of Spy became more enjoyable. (The fact that director Brian Levant turns up the action in the third act, highlighting Chan’s degree in ass-kickery, also probably helped.) Yes, I did end up smirking or snickering at a few jokes. And dammit if I didn’t get a little emotionally involved in a scene where the kids may never see Bob again.
I wouldn’t recommend The Spy Next Door as something to watch by yourself or with your significant other. But watch it with the right audience (say, 9- to 12-year-olds), and a fun movie experience could very well take place.
Is it suitable for your kids?The Spy Next Door is rated PG for “action violence and mild rude humor,” a rating which seems appropriate. Here are some examples:
* Gunplay, knifeplay, and fisticuffs
* Mild language (“Don’t B.S. me.”)
* Random name-calling of “nerd,” “geekboy,” and “dork”
* Jokes involving bodily functions and booze (1 each)
* Some mild bullying (resulting in Ian getting a wedgie)
* Poldark sends Tatiana to the kids’ house and demands that there be “no survivors”
* Tatiana spits out teeth after being smacked with a closing door
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?I can’t imagine the appeal The Spy Next Door would have for her as something to watch with you or in her own free time. But like I said, a group viewing with tween-age kids could be fun.
The Spy Next Door
* Director: Brian Levant
* Screenwriters: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer, Gregory Poirier
* Stars: Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Billy Ray Cyrus, Magnus Scheving, George Lopez, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley
* MPAA Rating: PG (scenes of action violence and mild rude humor)
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