If Jackie Chan did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. His latest vehicle, “The Spy Next Door,” fits neatly into his array of comic action films suitable for children and their parents. The 92 minute, PG-rated effort from helmer Brian Levant and screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer, and Gregory Poirier, offers a little something for everyone. That’s not to say that it is flawless. It sticks pretty closely to the unassuming geek as martial arts master formula which Chan has perfected. Add to the recipe a little “fish-out-of-water” and season with elements from the “Get Smart” series and you have a tasty frittata that should satisfy all but the most finicky.
Chan stars as Bob Ho, a Chinese intelligence officer on loan to the CIA. That preposterous premise sets the tone for rest of pic’s hijinx. His cover is a geeky, suburban pen salesman. The “Next Door” part of the story involves Amber Valetta as Gillian, single mother of three impossible kids, and Chan’s love interest. Plot centers on Ho’s desire to retire from spying and marry Gillian. Her kids’ opinion of him is the first hitch. He’s just not cool enough. The second hitch is a sort of comic version of Al Pacino’s famous line, “Every time I try to get out they drag me back in.”
In this case, the drag back is a Russian plot to unleash a bacterium on all the world’s oil supply — Russia’s excepted — which consume anything made of petroleum and then vanish as quickly as they appear.
Pic is played over-the-top to excellent comic effect. Magnús Scheving’s Poldark, Ho’s arch enemy, is a marvelous caricature of a bad guy. Another standout on the Russian team is Katherine Boecher as Creel, a slinky blond sporting tight black outfits, Jimmy Choos and a mean kick.
What brings all the elements together and creates pic’s best action sequences — as well as most of its jokes — is a sort of contrived plot point in which Gillian leaves town to look after her injured dad and puts Bob in charge of her three unruly brats. To Bob, this is his chance to make the kids like him. It’s also his fish-out-of-water moment. Spies have some learning to do where raising kids is at issue. Of course, Bob has to win the kids over — and he does so in part by accident. Gillian’s 11-year-old, Ian (Will Shadley) is as much a geek as Bob appears to be, a would be rocket scientist, who downloads the Russian’s secret bacterium formula from Bob’s home computer thinking it is a video game. This puts the Russians on Bob’s tail and consequently on the kids’ tails. The sight of Bob kickboxing Russian spies is just too cool for words. Ian is won over. So is four-year-old Nora (Alina Foley). Farren (Madeline Carroll), Gillian’s 13-year-old stepdaughter, is the toughest nut, but even she cracks. The kids join the fight against the Russians with undisguised glee in scenes reminiscent of the “Home Alone” series. Thus far, the formula works.
Gillian is another story. Furious at the revelation that Bob is a spy and that her brood has been endangered, she gives him the shove — permanently. Since this is a comedy, however, the final reel offers a slapstick climax, which includes a Russian spy wearing a television as a hat.
Special mention goes to recording artist Billy Ray Cyrus as CIA good guy Colton James and comic George Lopez as the Russian’s mole in the CIA. Choreography is as good as one has come to expect from Chan, and lensing by Dean Cundey frames it all to good effect. Soundtrack includes familiar “Secret Agent Man” and Blondie’s “One Way Or Another”. One nit to pick is Chan’s accent. He can be a tad tough to understand at times, but since editor Lawrence Jordan leaves no loose ends, a lost line or two can be imputed from the context.