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Jackie Chan and Alina Foley star in The Spy Next Door.

1 out of 4 stars


The Spy Next Door

  • Directed by Brian Levant
  • Written by Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer and Gregory Poirier
  • Starring Jackie Chan, Lucas Till, Amber Valletta, George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus
  • Classification: PG

What does an action-movie superstar do when he's past his physical peak but still has box-office mojo - aside from running for governor of California? Career transition can be painful. The latest evidence is Jackie Chan's The Spy Next Door (or, as I prefer to call it, Jackie Chan's Adventures in Babysitting).

Chan has been tumbling and rumbling since his days as a child performer in the 1960s. He moved swiftly from stuntman to star, moving back and forth between the movie capitals of Hong Kong and Hollywood, cementing his celebrity with humanitarian and creative endeavours. When Hollywood first came knocking, he smartly avoided stereotypical Asian-villain roles, his singular blend of comedy and martial-arts acrobatics finding successful mainstream expression in buddy movies with Chris Tucker ( Rush Hour and two sequels) and Owen Wilson ( Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights ).

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After decades of performing his own stunts, and breaking numerous bones, Chan certainly deserves more restful roles. His turn as the wise martial-arts teacher in the reboot of The Karate Kid , due this summer, sounds like a good fit. But for now, we have Bob Ho, a middle-aged Chinese superspy on loan to the CIA, whom we meet on the eve of his early retirement.

Bob has been pitching woo with his suburban divorcee neighbour Gillian (Amber Valetta), who thinks he's an ink salesman. On a date that gives us our first (and sadly not last) glimpse of the couple's inert chemistry, Bob is called to a final mission, during which he successfully captures a cartoonish Russian villain. The next morning, Bob wakes up a civilian, ready to pursue domestic bliss with his neighbour.

But pitfalls and pratfalls are just around the corner. For starters, Gillian's three highly annoying offspring (a lisping little girl, a nerdy brainiac tween son, and a surly teenage daughter) think he's a loser. Gillian is suddenly called out of town on an emergency, so Bob volunteers to babysit, hoping more face time will win them over.

Chan's comedic gifts and still-nimble moves are wasted in a string of unimaginative household calamities and practical jokes. When he asks his old CIA pal to loan him some spy gear to help keep the kids in order, it's supposed to be funny, but, in terms of the character, feels like a cop-out.

Time to call in those crazy Russians to liven things up. Seems brainiac boy has downloaded a file from Bob's computer, which turns out to be a secret formula. The Russian villain, who has escaped custody, reunites with his bumbling henchmen and blond vixen girlfriend. As they close in on the file's location - using the latest in villain-tracking technology - Bob and the kids find themselves in increasing danger. Ooh … I've got a feeling mom is not going to like this.

Chan fans won't either. The Spy Next Door targets the family audience (note the casting of Billy Ray Cyrus, father of Miley, as Bob's CIA pal) with the kind of strained story and hijinks we've come to expect from veteran family-film director Brian Levant ( Beethoven , Snow Dogs ), who guided Arnold Schwarzenegger through his final screen comedy in 1996's Jingle All The Way .

The film's opening credits run over a montage of stylized clips from Chan's early work (to the tune of Secret Agent Man ); end credits feature the gag reel he always delivers. And although Chan's tremendous screen charisma is mostly undercover throughout, I suspect The Spy Next Door is just a misstep on the road to his next act.

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