Lionsgate // 2010 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 13th, 2010
Part spy. Part babysitter. All hero.
"I want Bob to be my daddy."
Bob Ho (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour) has been one of the CIA's most-valued agents for many years. However, Bob is now in a relationship with Gillian (Amber Valletta, Transporter 2), a single mother of three who lives next door. Everything seems to be going great, aside from the fact that Gillian's children hate Bob. All they know about him is that he claims to work for a pen company and that he seems incredibly boring. However, Bob is determined to do whatever it takes to make the children like him. When Gillian has to go out of town to visit her ailing father, Bob volunteers to babysit. "I've taken down dictators," he tells one of his co-workers. "How hard can handling three children be?" Very hard indeed, it seems. After one of the kids accidentally uncovers Bob's secret identity as a spy, Bob and the children are launched into a high-octane adventure. Will Bob be able to earn the children's trust and save the world from the villainous schemes of the evil Poldark (Magnus Scheving, LazyTown)?
In recent times, it has become common practice for action stars to earn some easy money by allowing themselves to be dragged through all sorts of embarrassments in a children's movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger did Kindergarten Cop, Sylvester Stallone played multiple roles in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Vin Diesel took his turn in The Pacifier, and Dwayne Johnson played the Tooth Fairy. Now, Jackie Chan takes his turn with The Spy Next Door, which basically offers the exact same concept as The Pacifier with a nimble spy replacing a gruff Navy Seal. Given that Chan is no longer able to perform the same kind of stunts he once was, it's no surprise that he's forced to do this kind of thing, but that fact does little to comfort those who know how cool a good Jackie Chan movie can be. The Spy Next Door is pure Disney-Channel formula from start to finish.
The selling point of the film is a simple one: a spy attempts to go on a high-pressure mission while dealing with the even more considerable pressures of babysitting three bratty kids. The children yell, scream, fight and treat Bob miserably as he attempts to battle a never-ending horde of the villain's hired goons. I wish I could tell you that these scenes are entertaining on some level, but they're handled in such a cheesy, preposterous manner (with goofy, Looney Tune-ish special effects and wacky sax music added in liberally) that anyone over the age of 10 is very unlikely to derive any real enjoyment from the proceedings. The spy elements of the film are routine clichés cobbled together from just about every obvious source imaginable (did we really need "Secret Agent Man" playing over the opening titles?).
The rest of the film focuses on the emotional needs of the characters. The children have been abandoned by their father, but they hope against hope that their deadbeat dad will return someday. As a result of this mentality, they simply want to cause misery for any man who makes a move on their mother. There's also the relationship between Bob and Gillian, which starts out well enough but which turns very tense when Gillian discovers Bob is a spy. She returns home, slaps him in the face and demands that he stay away from her children. An overreaction? Yeah, but there's no room for nuance or subtlety in a movie like this.
Nowhere is that fact more evident than in the performance of Magnus Scheving, a Swedish actor doing a Russian accent so bad that it makes Harrison Ford's work in K-19: The Widowmaker seem astonishingly authentic. Scheving may be the biggest offender, but the fact of the matter is that most of the actors are nearly as unconvincing. Neither Gillian nor the children ever seem quite like real people, while Billy Ray Cyrus (Mulholland Dr.) and George Lopez (Balls of Fury) phone in their performances. That leaves the burden of selling the material on Chan's shoulders. While Chan is a likable guy, he's hardly a master thespian and simply can't compensate for the film's shortcomings.
The film has that very generic family-movie look, with a bright, bland palette and unimaginative design. So, while the film isn't exactly particularly absorbing on a visual level, the transfer does manage to get the job done in satisfactory fashion. There's a small measure of natural grain present throughout, but not too noticeable. Facial detail seems a bit lacking at time, though background detail is generally quite strong. Blacks are deep and shadow delineation is respectable. The audio is fine, with a nice level of balance between David Newman's frenzied score and the equally chaotic sound design. Despite all of the action scenes, there isn't really anything that's going to challenge your speakers in any significant way. Extras are limited to two brief, EPK-style featurettes ("Jackie Chan: Stunt Master and Mentor" and "Adventures in Acting with the Kids from The Spy Next Door"), a blooper reel and a DVD Copy of the film (more useful than a digital copy).
One very cool moment: Jackie Chan gives one of the kids a bootleg CD of a concert featuring David Bowie and Iggy Pop performing live in Shanghai. If there's any way to an 8-year-old boy's heart, it's through an album of music featuring those two. Even more delightfully, as far as this kid's concerned the album is the greatest treasure one could possibly own. How wonderfully odd for a movie that otherwise feels very much like a spy-themed episode of Hannah Montana.
This is the sort of cynically formulaic family movie that gives family movies a bad name. Of course the young ones will enjoy it, as it's fast, colorful and distracting. Anyone who actually cares about movies will find the film a pretty painful 95 minutes.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Blooper Reel
* DVD Copy