While babysitting his neighbour's children, a mild-mannered guy (Jackie Chan) winds up having to fight off secret agents after one of the kids inadvertently downloads a secret code.
As the 1980s audience’s ravenous hunger for cartoonish action subsided, the genre’s flag bearers turned to the family comedy to prolong their celebrity. The theory was that as the predominantly male audience that fuelled the action craze grew old, they would be willing to take their kids to see the heroes of their youth give sentimental slapstick a try.
It worked for awhile but the results were...um...mixed, at best. Arnold Schwarzennegger tempered the transition with the cute-sounding but surprisingly-violent Kindergarten Cop (1990) before selling out to the kids completely with Jingle All The Way (1996); Jean-Claude Van Damme starred opposite our Kylie in the abysmal vid-game adaptation Streetfighter (1994); Sylvester Stallone understood his face would only scare children, so he chose to do some voice work on the animated film Antz (1998) instead; Chuck Norris made Top Dog (1995), Vin Diesel made The Pacifier (2005)....uh, I feel queasy....
Barring a transition to family comedy stardom by Steven Seagal, martial arts legend Jackie Chan is the last action hero to fully embrace the family audience with Brian Levant’s The Spy Next Door. And, like the sweaty behemoths that have travelled this road before him, it makes for an uncomfortable journey for everyone involved.
We are introduced to Chan’s character Bob Ho in a credit sequence that takes scene grabs from the actor’s past triumphs to establish his secret agent credentials. It’s a regrettable decision, as it only serves to highlight how much he has aged as the star of mediocre Hollywood fare. Ho’s current life is one of suburban semi-retirement – he’s dating his neighbour Gillian (Amber Valletta), a single mom with three insufferable children (Alina Foley, Will Shadley, Madeline Carroll), all sourced from the pile of resumes at Central Casting labelled 'cute, pretentious brats’. Ex-model Valletta is pretty and personable in a thankless role; all three kids are terrible actors.
The mysteries of Ho’s work as a CIA operative begin to surface when a date with Gillian is interrupted by a phone call from the Agency, calling Ho and his partner Colton (Billy Ray Cyrus) into action. An unwieldy, convoluted plot unfolds involving a Russian corporate terrorist named Poldark (Magnus Scheving), a CIA boss who moonlights as a crooked double-agent named Glaze (George Lopez), a computer file of information that ends up on one of the children’s iPods and a clichéd collection of snarling bad guys who are willing to kill for it.
Raised in the suburbs of Canberra after his family emigrated until returning to his native Hong Kong, Jackie Chan ruled the world of Asian-produced martial arts cinema for two decades, with films like Drunken Master (1978), Winners & Sinners (1983) and the Police Story franchise. When Hollywood beckoned, there was a great sense of anticipation that Chan’s extraordinary athleticism and on-screen charisma could see him become Asia’s first truly international star. Such was his A-list potential, at one point the producers of the Bond franchise were considering him as the new 007.
But an Asian leading man proved a tough sell to Western audiences, and Chan only found success when he was riffing on his own ethnicity, first opposite Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films and then opposite Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon (2000) and Shanghai Knights (2003). His best role in recent times, as the drunken Shaolin master Lu Yan opposite Jet Li in Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), was a barely-seen box-office failure.
All of which makes the utterly disposable The Spy Next Door all the more of a disappointment. It is one of the few roles in which Chan’s Asian heritage is not pivotal to the characterisation or used for comic effect. It is the one concession that can be granted director Levant, who eschews subtlety in all its forms as evidenced by his resume of horrible family films – Problem Child 2 (1991), Beethoven (1992), The Flinstones (1994), the aforementioned Jingle All The Way, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas (2000) and Are We There Yet? (2005).
Jackie Chan’s next film is the remake of 80’s crowd-pleaser The Karate Kid, in which he’ll be seen as Mr. Han, the 2010 version of Pat Morita’s inscrutable Mr. Miyagi. It’s June 11 U.S. release date will reveal if the temptation to play the caricature in favour of the character is too strong for Chan who, despite being one of the most enduring action stars of the genre’s heyday, has allowed himself to be led down the wrong path too often before.