(by Dustin Putman
Nightmares stemming from the memory of 2005's Vin Diesel vehicle "The Pacifier" are bound to occur for anyone who has seen the trailers and/or promotional materials for "The Spy Next Door," aging martial-arts superstar Jackie Chan's inevitable foray into the family film market. Both pictures share an uncannily similar secret-agent-turned-babysitter storyline, most of the plot beats are identical, and they each feature unusual pets as comic relief ("The Pacifier" had a duck, "The Spy Next Door" has a pig and a turtle). The difference, one supposes, is in their treatment and tone. Whereas the former movie approached being unbearable with its lame slapstick, overly manipulative and mushy musical cues, and overall intellectual dimness, this latest version of a shopworn premise is somehow easier to digest. It's often cornball and always predictable, but also generally cheerful and good-natured, as airy as oxygen. Article continues below
Posing as a straight-laced office worker living in suburbia, in actuality Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) is an international spy who has yet to break the news to his next-door neighbor/girlfriend, single mother Gillian (Amber Valletta). Before he gets the chance, Gillian must fly to Denver to care for her ailing father. Bob jumps at the chance to watch her three children while she's goneórebellious teenager Farren (Madeline Carroll), brainy Ian (Will Shadley), and precocious 4-year-old Nora (Alina Foley)óhoping it will give them the time to warm up and bond with him. What he doesn't expect is that babysitting will be more challenging than fighting bad guys, made all the more complicated when nefarious escaped Russian criminal Poldark (Magnus Scheving) and girlfriend Tatiana (Katherine Scheving) come knocking.
Directed by Brian Levant (2005's "Are We There Yet?"), "The Spy Next Door" ought not be considered quality entertainment, but it's relatively harmless save for the rare throwaway adult line of dialogue (one referring to the Playboy channel and another making light of Alcoholics Anonymous). Thickly-accented villains Poldark and Tatiana are not to be taken seriously for a second, basically knockoffs of Boris and Natasha, but they're amusing. The screenwriting by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer (2001's "Max Keeble's Big Move") and Gregory Poirer (2005's "A Sound of Thunder"), however, leaves something to be desired, showing a distinct disconnect with today's times. Bullies at school, for example, give Ian a wedgie of all things, while Ian later raves that he will be the star of the school for getting hold of a David Bowie and Iggy Pop concert bootleg. As sad as it may be, it's safe to say most ten-year-olds in 2010 haven't a clue who David Bowie and Iggy Pop are, let alone expected to be frothing at the mouth for concert footage of the two musicians.
At fifty-five years old, Jackie Chan (2008's "The Forbidden Kingdom") is not the sprightly spring chicken he once was, but he is immensely likable and his physical capabilities still rather impressive. The fight choreography, complete with lots of jumping and climbing stunts, is entertaining to watch and a step above the norm for this kind of film. When it comes time for him to act, he is both eager to please and sincere, if not exactly an Oscar-worthy thespian. His relationships with the kids, at first rocky before they warm to him, are cute, their one-on-one time together certainly better than the scenes where the charges are lined up in a row and given superficial, faux-clever lines of dialogue to recite.
As Farren, Madeline Carroll (2008's "Swing Vote") has star quality and undeniable talentómore, it should be said, than this throwaway fluff deserves. One notable element to her character that adds a little depth to an archetype is the reveal that she is Gillian's step-daughter, her angry behavior stemming from a deceased mother and a father who has abandoned her. As Ian, Will Shadley shows enthusiasm, but too often falls into hand-waving, over-pronounced histrionics, while little Alina Foley, as Nora, is adorable, if unpolished. The underrated Amber Valletta (2009's "Gamer") brings unanticipated nuance to the part of Gillian, a woman contending with raising three kids on her own while yearning for a little time and happiness to call her own. Finally, Billy Ray Cyrus (2009's "Hannah Montana: The Movie") and George Lopez (2008's "Henry Poole Is Here") cash paychecks as Bob's spy associates; it's hard to believe either one took these thankless roles because they were drawn to the characters.
Breezy and disposable, "The Spy Next Door" is tailor-made for the under-12 set and will at least divert everyone else. There's never any doubt where things are headed, but director Brian Levant moves the obvious along at a peppy clip. Still, longtime Jackie Chan fans probably won't be pleased, labeling this dip into the family market a sign of selling out. For the less demanding, the movie could be a lot worse. It might go in one ear and out the other, but hey, better that than the alternative. It could be "The Pacifier."