It’s a sad day for Jackie Chan fans when the action-comedy star is reduced to a vehicle as lame as “The Spy Next Door.” As an undercover CIA agent ill-equipped to babysit his girlfriend’s three kids, Chan struggles gamely to charm, but the pic’s cartoonish jokes and misfired gags are likely to elicit more eye rolls than laughs. That said, little ones enticed by the trailer and devoted Chan fans may join forces to generate a decent opening weekend, followed by a sharp drop-off once this “Spy’s” cover is blown.
Chan plays Bob Ho, a mild-mannered pen salesman by day who moonlights as an international spy. He’s just the kind of simple, trusting guy his neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta) wants in her life, but her three kids find him irredeemably boring. When Gillian is summoned out of town to care for a sick parent, Bob sees an opportunity, persuading her to leave him in charge of her brood: disaffected teenage daughter Farren (Madeline Carroll), nerdy prepubescent Ian (Will Shadley) and adorable 4-year-old Nora (Alina Foley).
A host of mini-crises ensue (a disastrous attempt to cook ends with smoke alarms blaring), all designed to spotlight Bob’s incompetence on the domestic front. Only when Bob pulls out his spy gear, installing closed-circuit cameras and kiddie LoJacks — parents take note — do things start to turn around.
At the same time, there’s also an international incident involving a sartorially challenged Russian villain, Poldark (Magnus Scheving) and a top-secret formula for bacteria-eating goop. Somehow, young Ian has intercepted and downloaded the formula on his iPod, a fact that immediately and inexplicably becomes known to the Russians, so it’s not long before Poldark and his cronies come after Bob and the kids. Final reel involves a blow-out fight that packs plenty of stunt choreography, physical humor and sight gags timed to coincide with Halloween.
Thematically, the pic borrows a thing or two from “The Pacifier,” the 2005 comedy in which Vin Diesel was the undercover agent left in charge of five kids. “Spy’s” most effective sequences involve Bob’s attempts to bond with the kids, in particular little Nora, which is understandable given helmer Brian Levant’s track record with family comedies (“Beethoven,” “Jingle All the Way”).
As for Chan, he’s far more persuasive as a comic charmer than as a romantic lead; he has much better chemistry with Carroll, Shadley and Foley than he does with Valletta. Now 55, Chan doesn’t have quite the loose-limbed elasticity of his glory days, and though he may still perform some of his own stunts, there’s a sense in “The Spy Next Door” of a star struggling to find a foothold.
It’s a feeling underscored by David Newman’s music, which strains toward the kind of cutesy, exaggerated playfulness that ought to have naturally emanated from the screen. As usual with Chan movies, the gag reel is not to be missed.