The Spy Next Door (review)

Kung Phooey

One wonders what sins Jackie Chan could have committed in a single lifetime to warrant having an abomination like this pathetic excuse for a movie weighing down his karma.

We know what cinema-criminal director Briant Levant did: he inflicted the likes of Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet?, and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas upon an unsuspecting public. These really are three of the very worst movies of recent years, and it boggles the mind how Levant continues to get these very high-paying directing jobs. (Current DGA minimum for a big-budget feature: just under $200,000. As a director with a “track record,” even of making the shittiest movies imaginable, Levant will have been paid much more.) It’s true that both Dogs and There turned a profit, because they were so cheap to produce — in the financial sense as well as, of course, the brain-dead soul-crushing sense — but is it honestly that much harder to make an inexpensive movie that doesn’t make you want to curl up into a fetal ball in an attempt to retreat to the blissful ignorance of the womb, to forget that we live in such a world as this one, which values profit over all else, including the mental health of the very customers one is taking money from?

We know what cinema-criminal screenwriters Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, and Gregory Poirier did: the former pair “wrote” Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, and the latter excreted two of the most abominable movies of recent years not directed by Levant, A Sound of Thunder and Tomcats. (He also wrote National Treasure: Book of Secrets, which is merely averagely terrible, not supernaturally awful.) Once again, I ask: How do these guys get work? You could walk into any Starbucks in Hollywood and find an out-of-work writer who would gladly give you a passably mediocre script — that is to say, something much, much better than what we have here — for the WGA minimum of around $60,000.

So: Jackie Chan (Kung Fu Panda, The Forbidden Kingdom) must have known what was he getting in to with The Spy Next Door. I like Chan, but I’m mad at him right now, because his name is the only thing that will drag people in to see this film, and he had to have known how awful it was going to be. But he took the money anyway, and will leave his fans to despair and misery. The opening credits — in which nostalgia-faded clips of Chan from all sorts of old kung-fu action movies play over a jaunty rendition of “Secret Agent Man” — become like a taunt, reminding us of how awesome Chan can be just before we are forced to see him prostituting himself in the most degrading way.

For this is Are We There Yet? once again, a cartoon story of a domestically helpless bachelor taking on the woman’s work of babysitting three obnoxious grade-school brats in order to secure himself regular access to their mother. Chan is Chinese spy Bob Ho (Chan), on loan to the CIA, who has been romancing the neighbor, Gillian (Amber Valletta [Gamer, Premonition], who looks embarrassed to be here, and rightly so), next door to his cover house, and if you don’t think she won’t be catastrophically disappointed when she discovers that Bob has been lying to her all along — he does not actually sell pens for a living — then you must count yourself lucky to have missed the 187,632 other iterations of this garbage. But she won’t marry him because the kids don’t like him.

Of course, the kids don’t like anyone. There’s Farren (Madeline Carroll: Astro Boy, Swing Vote), who is perhaps 13; Ian (Will Shadley), about 11; and Nora (Alina Foley, daughter of Kid in the Hall Dave Foley) — they pout and throw tantrums and treat every adult around them with utter contempt, and this is meant to be cute. Oh, and they have no fear that anything they do will result in negative consequences, and this mostly turns out to be the case. It is alleged to be uproarious when Bob agrees to watch the kids for a few days — after the Plot Fairy comes and removes Gillian from the story — and he simply cannot cope with such impossibilities as reading the freakin’ directions on a box of oatmeal. (This is a man to whom matters of international security are supposedly entrusted. Oh, but the mens: they are so hopeless in the kitchen!)

More supposed comedy ensues when who shows up but Bob’s archenemy, Russian terrorist Poldark (Icelandic children’s-TV entrepreneur Magnús Scheving, creator of LazyTown; ask your kids). Then comes the Stooges-esque kung-fu slapfights: I swear to god, if Chan isn’t getting some assists from wires and CGI, then the gravity is different in his world. So even the pleasures that typically come from Jackie Chan movies — such as seeing him do his thing without FX — are denied us here. Bastards. (Oh, and I love how, in another context, Ian snidely notes to Bob, whom he sees as an out-of-date dork, that it’s no longer 1985. Which is true. So then why is the villain Russian?)

It all would have been intolerable enough if Levant had been content to leave this cartoon well enough alone as a cartoon, but every five minutes the schmaltzy music swells as Bob makes an “emotional breakthrough” with the brats. It’s as if the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote were forced to attend therapy together; or if Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd decided to talk out their differences over a beer. It’s high concept as high horror.

Shoddily written, lazily directed, and casually misogynist — remember, this is a movie that some will defend as being “for kids” — this could well be a terrorist plan itself, meant to drive us crazy. And I haven’t even mentioned the nightmare of seeing George Lopez, perhaps the unfunniest comedian ever, and country-singer-who-can’t-act Billy Ray Cyrus as Bob’s CIA contacts. God help us if Levant ever decides to make a movie about them.

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