When Jackie Chan gave up on acting and decided to retire, he didn’t issue a press release, he made “The Spy Next Door.” The message is poignant and unmistakable: I give up. I have been defeated. My career no longer means anything to me.
It’s sad to see a once-vital star burn out, especially one as likable as Chan, but that sadness wears off quickly while watching “The Spy Next Door.” It is replaced by exasperation, and then annoyance as you realize that what you are watching is the same movie as “The Pacifier,” starring Vin Diesel, which you didn’t like then, either.
Chan plays Bob Ho, a Chinese spy who was loaned to the CIA and is now retiring so he can settle down and marry his girlfriend, Gillian (Amber Valletta), who lives next door and doesn’t know he’s a spy. She thinks he’s a pen importer. Around her, Bob acts like a boring geek, wears eyeglasses, and hides his super-spy abilities. Gillian loves that he’s normal and reliable, not like her ex-husband, who ran off and left her with three kids.
Oh yes! Gillian has three children: Farren (Madeline Carroll), 13, who still thinks Dad is going to come back; Ian (Will Shadley), about 10, a science nerd and a target for bullies; and Nora (Alina Foley), 4, whose job is to be adorable. The kids don’t want Mom to marry Bob. They think he’s a doofus. They may also object to the 20-year age difference between them, although this is not expressed outright.
So Gillian has to go out of town because her father’s in the hospital, and Bob volunteers to babysit so he can bond with the children. This is where we learn that, for all his many talents in the field of espionage, Bob is incompetent as a cook and nanny! Why, he dumps the entire box of Quaker oatmeal into the pot! And he tries to take muffins out of the oven with his bare hands — yowch! It isn’t until he starts using spy gadgets that he gets the household in order: a tracking device on Nora so she won’t get lost, and a miniature flamethrower to cook the toast and bacon. (Why this is easier than simply using a toaster and a frying pan, I do not know. Just remember that a SPY having to do MUNDANE KITCHEN THINGS is HILARIOUS.)
Meanwhile, a Russian terrorist named Poldark (Magnus Scheving) has escaped CIA custody and is looking for a top-secret code that young Ian accidentally downloaded from Bob’s computer, which means Poldark and his goons are going to show up any minute now and kill them all. Bob must save the children — and the world!
Will it impress you to learn that Bob’s CIA friends are played by George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus? And that Cyrus, sporting a soul patch, earrings, and pointy sideburns, is apparently visiting us from 1998? No? OK.
Despite the many imminent threats from Poldark and his crew, no one ever calls the police, not even when Bob is racing back to Gillian’s house because he knows Poldark is on his way there. None of the technology makes sense; Bob’s skills occasionally verge on the supernatural; the dialogue is purely functional, devoid of wit. To have any hope of enduring this film, you must abandon all expectations of reason, logic, or laughter.
It is clear that the three credited screenwriters — veterans of “Just My Luck,” “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector,” and “Tomcats” — had no interest in producing something clever, and they probably had little incentive to do so. The director, Brian Levant, whose previous awful kid comedies include “Jingle All the Way” and “Are We There Yet?,” knew all he needed to sell the film to audiences were some scenes of Jackie Chan doing his fast-paced martial-arts thing and the image of Chan holding a mop or a vacuum cleaner or something. The old guy is still fun to watch when he’s fighting; every now and then in “The Spy Next Door” you catch a glimpse of why you like his movies. Then the glimpse fades and it’s back to the domestic shenanigans, which are routine and uninspired and depressing. Send us a postcard from oblivion, Jackie!
Note: Contrary to regular industry practice, this film was not screened for critics before opening.
D+ (1 hr., 32 min.; )