Bob Ho (Jackie Chan), a Chinese super-spy on loan to the CIA, wants to retire from the espionage scene and marry his sweetheart, Gillian (Amber Valetta). Unfortunately, Gillian has three rowdy children from a previous marriage, each of whom regard Bob’s mild-mannered alter ego as a total geek and are dead against him marrying their mom. So while Gillian spends a week visiting her father in hospital, Bob volunteers for a spot of babysitting, hoping to win over stroppy thirteen year old Farren (Madeline Carroll), obnoxious know-it-all Ian (Will Shadley) and lisping, hyperactive Nora (Alina Foley). Meanwhile, a Russian terrorist named Anton Poldark (Magnús Scheying) is after a USB memory stick in Bob’s possession that houses the secret formula for a substance able to dissolve the world’s oil supply, except for Russia’s. Inevitably, Bob’s hectic home life and espionage activities collide with calamitous results.
Jackie Chan has risked life and limb many times throughout the course of his long career, often incurring many injuries, but none quite so deadly as putting his reputation in the hands of the hapless Brian Levant. Levant has been on the Hollywood scene for a good few years now and responsible for such celluloid atrocities as Problem Child 2 (1991), Beethoven (1992), The Flintstones (1994) and Jingle All the Way (1996). He is the kind of filmmaker that has made the term “family film” a byword for trash mediocrity and I say this as someone who loves family films far more than most cinefiles.
The Spy Next Door gets off to a lively start with an ingratiating montage of clips from Chan’s past films including Operation Condor (1991) and Rush Hour (1998), although arguably The Accidental Spy (2001) would have been more appropriate. Sadly, things take a nose-dive soon as Bob’s life segues into domestic disaster. Levant’s direction is so leaden and his attempts at humour and pathos so crassly inept, it damn near saps the energy out of the normally effervescent star. Although Jackie’s slapstick stunt choreography injects a small modicum of fun into the finale, for the most part he wearily goes through the motions with slackly staged set-pieces, evidently wishing he were somewhere, anywhere else.
By far the film’s biggest problem is inability to make Jackie’s three young co-stars remotely sympathetic, and these kids have been abandoned by their father and are bullied at school. At least Madeline Carroll acquits herself well in one scene where Jackie recounts a genuinely touching anecdote drawn from his real-life experiences as a child in the Peking Opera, and young Alina Foley has one amusing moment where she subdues a hulking Russian hit-man with a stun-gun, but Will Shadley, whether by accident or design, essays one of the most loathsome little creeps to ever ooze across the silver screen. Of course one can’t be too harsh on young mister Shadley. Time and again in Brian Levant’s films, children are drawn as belligerent, selfish, and often downright homicidal, after which a saccharine climax asks us to love them. These are children’s films written by people who either do not understand kids or else secretly loathe them.
Sitcom stars George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus (yes, Hannah Montana’s dad and of Achy-Breaky Heart infamy) seem as lost as Jackie, their comedic timing ill-served by a script with one-liners that regularly fall flat. The supporting cast playing rogue Russian assassins are so cartoonish they make those gurning goons in Mr. Nice Guy (1997) look like the Royal Shakespeare Company. And man, there ain’t no supporting cast worst than the stars of Mr. Nice Guy! Look out for teen heartthrob Lucas Till among their number. Yes, the hunky love interest from Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009), the guy that got to tryst with country sweetheart Taylor Swift in her “You Belong with Me” video, gets his ass kicked by Jackie. However, Amber Valetta deserves some respect for maintaining some semblance of sincerity while all around her collapse into a mass of melted marshmallow. Thankfully, Jackie soon got his dual Hong Kong and Hollywood careers back on track with Little Big Soldier (2010) and The Karate Kid (2010).