The aggressively family-friendly plot of The Spy Next Door casts Chan as Bob Ho, a Chinese secret agent who has been on loan to the CIA. He lives a lush life in a large suburban home and has somehow managed to woo Gillian, the beautiful blond next door (Amber Valletta), despite his nerdy cover persona as a pen importer. They've been dating three months, and everything's going great. Ho plans to retire and really try and settle down with her, but there's just one problem: Her three kids totally hate him. But when Gillian needs to leave town to tend to a sick father (nothing tragic broke his hip playing softball, the old codger), Bob volunteers to watch the kids, and by gum, he's gonna make them love him if it kills him. Let's just hope the dastardly Russian villains from his last case don't target him and the kids and really complicate matters.
Despite my jaded, childless life, I find myself mildly charmed by Chan's heartfelt and bumbling attempts to win over the three brats. This movie pulls out all the stops when it comes to plucking at heartstrings, and the kids do a decent job acting their roles as rebellious teen, nerdy over-achiever and adorable rascal, respectively. By the time the ridiculous Russian bad guys come back into the story, I almost found them a distraction. There hadn't been a fight scene for ages, but I sort of didn't mind. And when the action did start, it was, by Chan standards, almost low key. But each fight has enough acrobatic madness to keep the kids clapping (lots of clapping kids at the screening I attended), and the level of violence never passes the point of slapstick.
The Spy Next Door has some problems with pacing, especially in the middle, and every performance in the movie is as broad as the Mississippi Delta, with lots of mugging for the camera and metaphorical mustache twirling from the bad guys. Aimed squarely at kids, it doesn't offer much for their parents and not a thing for someone looking for a thrilling action experience. It seems to know its limits and adheres very strictly to them, never asking too much of its actors, story or audience. Chan can hardly speak English and is sometimes hard to understand, but he exudes charm and a cuddly loveability that make him impossible to not like on some level. If you don't have a child in tow you're eager to entertain, then The Spy Next Door isn't for you. If you want to see your lovable urchin practicing kung-fu kicks in the lobby after having a fun time, then it probably is.
Any movie that cuts away to family pets for reaction shots to jokes can't be aspiring beyond pleasing children as its one and only go. As a corollary, any covert intelligence agency that employs George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus in key management positions is not meant for a moment to be taken seriously. Thus, even before we get to the movie's plot, action, and star, Jackie Chan, we can be sure that The Spy Next Door is just a kids movie.
There was a time when Jackie Chan films meant serious kung-fu action, but few in the West remember or care about such ancient history. Most remember the over the top, dance-like choreography of the gymnastic fight scenes and he really did it himself! stunts that made Chan's lighter-themed action flicks also his biggest hits. But age slows down even the most diligent of martial artists, and Jackie Chan is clearly no self-deluded, aged action hero banking on a faded and fatted tough-guy image (ahem, Steven Seagal). Chan already had a cartoon version of himself on Saturday morning TV, and in his recent cinematic adventures he's been playing live-action characters that can only be described as to some degree cartoonish. But not necessarily cartoonish in a bad way.