I feel compelled to admit that I didn't enter Jackie Chan's unashamedly corny kids flick with a great deal of confidence. Trailers full of gawping children and a gurning Mr. Chan filled my worried mind with evil nightmares. I anticipated a 90-minute test of my tolerance for limp comedy and bad acting. In practice, The Spy Next Door delivers on only a smattering of its horrible promises, sanding down its sharp edges with a capably handled plot, expertly marshaled by an extremely experienced leading man.
Make no mistake, this is shiny shiny Hollywood candy-floss. The Spy Next Door provides nothing to fire up your dormant brain cells and breaks no new cinematic ground. What it does do, however, is deliver passably on the core requirement of any child-focussed picture: entertainment. It makes no qualms about its status as a kids film, not even bothering with a thinly veiled blowjob joke to break the chaperoning parents out of their stupor. This abandonment of pretense is refreshing and allows veteran kids-flick helmer Brian Levant to concentrate on churning out scene after scene of tightly packed kiddy goodness. The Spy Next Door will fade from the memory of both adult and child before long, but a focus on keeping the rug rats happy allows it push past its many failings, resulting in a pleasant, if soulless experience.
For all intents and purposes, this may as well be called Jackie Chan: The Kids Movie. The diminutive kung-fu legend judo chops his way through a light narrative as undercover spy turned babysitter Bob Ho. His character is extremely familiar, played like the clueless dolt with a heart of gold and fists of steel that Chan has plied to great effect in numerous American crossovers. In no way is Bob Ho anything other than 'Jackie Chan in a kids film' and the picture even begins with a short montage of his greatest kung fu hits. His aging asian face might not be as recognizable to the young target audience, but cultural osmosis should account for some familiarity for even the most closeted youth. Despite years of making English language films, Jackie still can't quite wrap his jaw around every syllable, so it's a relief to have it established early on that he is part of a spy exchange program with China.
Chan's task (should he choose to accept it) is to watch over the children of his next door neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta), a slender blonde divorcée who is inexplicably attracted to a nerdy man 20 years her senior. The trio of troublesome young 'uns are as clichéd as they come, including a cute tiny one, a dorky boy who wants to bag a lady, and a stroppy tween. They despise their new interloper, who sees his babysitting gig as the perfect opportunity to convince the kids that he should marry their mother. Then, before you can say 'predictable plot device', the geeky one has accidentally hacked into Chan's super-secret spy computer and downloaded an encrypted file. This alerts the attention of Poldark (Magnús Scheving), a Russian super criminal with the least convincing accent in the world. That is until cat-suited crony Creel (Katherine Boecher) arrives to wrestle away the title. Their alarmingly inaccurate diction should come as no surprise, as neither of the two actors posses the barest association with Russia. The Icelandic Scheving may be familiar to students and toddlers as the force behind TV's Crazy Town, on which he plays the athletics-obsessed superhero Sporticus.
With the gangsters on his trail, Jackie whisks his three charges from location to location, defeating baddies as he goes. This portion of the film is easily the most pleasing, as Chan is allowed to exercise his prodigious talent for slapstick kung-fu cinema. There's nothing quite like seeing the tiny whirlwind dispatch goons with a ladder or fend off an enemy spy with the accoutrements of a chinese restaurant. Chan's brand of light but visually moreish action is tailor made for this kind of puffy kids movie and injects an almost unfailingly shallow picture with short sharp shocks of genuine talent. Before long he is turning the tables on Poldark, an eager trio of mini-spies in tow, who have had their affections predictably reversed by the age old seduction tactic of being regularly placed in mortal danger. That same ploy does not work quite so well with Gillian, who is pleasingly furious that Jackie has kept his super-spy persona under wraps, willfully endangering her offspring in the process. Despite her realistic ire, once the big bad baddy has been vanquished you can see her sudden U-Turn coming a mile off.
For almost every positive moment The Spy Next Door has to offer, there's a shoddy Hollywood cliché or poor acting performance waiting around the corner. Still, I couldn't help feeling that the balance of power was slightly tipped in the favour of quality entertainment. Sitting firmly on the positive scale is Jackie Chan, who, for all his fumbling dialogue, has an undeniable charm. This is unquestionably a film for younger viewers – probably boys given all the gadgets and fighting – but children deserve films too. Ultimately, there's enough packed in to The Spy Next Door to ignite the fertile imagination of youth and keep parent's cold dead minds from falling fully comatose.