I understand fully that kids aren't the most discriminating audience in the world, but adults should still hold filmmakers responsible for some measure of quality in regard to family films. The Spy Next Door, brought to us by comedically tin-eared director Brian Levant (Snow Dogs, Jingle All the Way), is just plain lazy on all levels. Not content to rummage through the garbage bins of the action-star-who-can't-take-care-of-kids subgenre, searching for uninspired gags like one in which star Jackie Chan can't cook oatmeal, it also raids the waste baskets for the discarded bits from international superspy kid flicks (a subgenre long stripped bare of any of its original charm after never-ending waves of Spy Kids imitators).
Chan is in full-on clown mode as Chinese Intelligence agent Bob Ho, a spy next door to Amber Valleta's Gillian, who he's also dating, and her three children, teen Farren (Madeline Carroll), precocious Ian (Will Shadley), and toddler Nora (Alina Foley). As the film opens, Ho is retiring from the spy biz and wants to take his relationship with Gillian to the next level by coming clean to her about his secret double-life. Gillian isn't even ready to listen to Bob until her, frankly, hateful children warm up to him. At this point we got a convenient plot contrivance that sends Gilian out of town to her ailing father's side, allowing Bob to watch the children for an extended period of time with the hope that they'll all bond as a family.
Levant really has a thing for bratty kids, and they don't come much brattier than the hellions in The Spy Next Door. I'm not laying blame on the child actors; I'm laying blame on screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer, and Gregory Poirier, who supply Levant with the petulant, mean-spirited behavior that he happens to find funny and that fueled his previous klunkers Are We There Yet? and Problem Child 2. There's a predictable eleventh-hour emotional turn for the kids at the end of the film, but it doesn't alleviate the pain of the previous hour, watching Chan get treated like a complete moron by overly sarcastic children.
Jackie Chan, through all of this junk, remains a professional. He's enthusiastic beyond measure, certainly more than the material warrants. It's got to be a blessing that his language barrier probably keeps him from realizing just how phony-baloney his fellow actors are. A wooden Billy Ray Cyrus (seriously, what is up with that hair?) and a visibly tired George Lopez co-star as Bob's CIA buddies, drawing him back into the spy game when little Ian accidentally downloads the plans for a petroluem-devouring bacteria through a satellite link on Bob's computer. Russian baddie Poldark (Magnus Sheving) wants to use it to control the world's oil supply. You can tell he's Russian because he pronounces "formula" as "fer-mooluh" and "antibodies" as "antoo-botties".
Soon Bob is carting the kids around, trying to keep them out of danger, while Poldark attempts to retrieve his formula. Levant is as good with the action as he is with the comedy, which is to say not at all. Chan's stunt double has never been more obvious -- a younger guy in a shaggy black wig, doing all the tricks that Chan shouldn't be doing anymore and certainly not in films like this. Even Chan's trademark proto-parkour leaps up the side of buildings are floaty and more than a little sad, with apparent wire work helping the actor along the way. I don't blame Chan for sitting out the more physical bits, but I do blame Levant for making Chan's lack of participation obvious.
I also blame Levant for making Alina Foley's performance so inexplicable. I understand she's a hair's breadth past toddlerhood, and as such, isn't going to be giving Meryl Streep a run for her money (yet?), but if a kid actor makes a distracting face in a scene that doesn't call for it, don't use that take and definitely don't cut to an insert shot of her making that face. I'm sure it was very cute on set -- she's a cute girl -- but as a director, you have the power to make her look like a little pro. Cutting to moments where she is obviously thinking about anything but the movie at hand makes you look bad. I'm not sure why I expect this level of care from someone who apparently couldn't give George Lopez some Visine before takes.
Jackie Chan will survive all of this unscathed. He shows up with energy, works through his lines, and gives it his all. And for what? To star in a movie that time will bury with its forgotten predecessors like Mr. Nanny and Catch That Kid. Family filmmakers can keep on thinking kids care about the international spy trade (kids don't care) or whether or not men can cook a decent breakfast (kids don't care), and, honestly, this won't be the last kiddie flick to feature either one of those things in it. Concerning The Spy Next Door, if the lazy filmmakers don't care enough about their movie to offer at least one single original idea, then you shouldn't care enough to go see it.