Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The Spy Next Door
It's sad to see legends get old. As this generation of geeks raised on 1980's action movies advances in years, so do the actors we used to idolize. Some embrace it while others drop gracefully out of the spotlight. Others still refuse to let go, appearing in second-rate reality TV programs or direct-to-DVD action retreads. Some even run for public office. But when The Spy Next Door opens with a credit sequence filled with some of Jackie Chan's finest stunts from past films – all set to "Secret Agent Man," no less – it's hard not to compare the young, agile martial artist with the much older, much slower figure who appears on-screen directly after.
Now let's be clear…Any which way you cut it, The Spy Next Door is a terrible film. Whether you view the movie strictly as a critic or attempt to see it through the eyes of a child with no real concern for the trappings of quality cinema, this movie is utterly devoid of either action or charm. It's not funny; it's not exciting; and it's certainly not well-made. In fact, the entire movie looks to have been filmed for roughly what this reviewer will get paid for having written this review.
The story is deathly simple and wholly unoriginal. Bob Ho is an undercover secret agent on loan to America from the Chinese government. While on assignment chasing down a Russian bad-guy, Ho falls for the single mother next door. But before he can take their relationship to the next level, he has to earn the respect of her three children – the precocious boy, the sweet young girl and the attitude-heavy teenager. But when the villain and his gang break out of CIA custody in search of some files on Ho's personal computer, the kids become targets and Ho must protect them while also learning to cook, clean and play house in order to gain their trust. Sadly, however, from the premise to the execution, The Spy Next Door is a total entertainment failure, and yet shockingly, that's hardly the saddest thing about it…
Whether it's the lack of big-budget special effects afforded by such films as Rush Hour, or simply the effect of 55 years of hard, physical training, Jackie Chan looks old. There are moments in this film where Chan utilizes some poorly hidden wirework to pull off acrobatic feats that would have barely challenged him ten or fifteen years ago. The fight sequences have virtually no scale to them, taking place in very close quarters with a slight exchange of half-hearted punches and kicks. But the kind of dynamic action that fans are used to seeing from Chan is absent either by virtue of the film's budget or the actor's age. Certainly, the film is skewed toward children, but even family-friendly fight scenes can be well-choreographed and expansive. Instead, we get a dash of fisticuffs and a healthy serving of unfunny prop comedy, as if Carrot Top had finally earned his yellow-belt.
Another problem is that Chan is actually forced to attempt a performance here. Whereas in films like Rush Hour his broken English and confused delivery are factored into a comedic narrative, The Spy Next Door asks audiences to believe that this awkward, bespectacled secret agent, who can barely utter an intelligible sentence, could maintain a stable, loving relationship with the hot American soccer mom next door. But there simply isn't enough range to Chan's abilities as an actor to make any of the relationships – including those with the children – at all believable. Thankfully, the kids themselves all do a fine job and are arguably the most relatable characters in the film. George Lopez as the turncoat CIA director seems desperate to crack an adult-worthy joke while Billy Ray Cyrus appears uncomfortable in the wet, paper bag from which he can't quite seem to act himself.
At the end of the day, save your family the trouble of having to sit through this hamstrung, pseudo-comedic actioner. There are far better films – both in theaters and on home video – which you could watch with your children for an exceptionally better experience. In fact, if you're still reading this review, you've spent more time considering The Spy Next Door than you should have…and certainly more than the filmmakers did...