Jackie Chan has always been among the most amiable and intentionally comical of action film stars, and his latest theatrical release, The Spy Next Door, exemplifies the movement toward a stronger comedy and “family” element his films have taken in the past couple of decades. To be sure, Chan’s movies have always been filled with comedy, with gags often suffusing the action scenes, and the values they convey have always been very positive. But in The Spy Next Door the trend toward more comedy and fewer fight scenes and stunt sequences has solidified, as indicated by his character’s name: Bob Ho.
As he ages, Chan is becoming more of a general film actor and less of an action star. His difficulties in pronouncing English prevent him from taking on truly serious roles, for which we can perhaps be thankful, as there does not appear to be any shortage of actors willing and able to fill them adequately. Chan is immensely amiable and can still do impressive things as a physical performer.
The Spy Next Door shows that even in his fifties he is willing to undertake action sequences other actors wisely avoid or leave to stunt doubles. His current film includes a very good fight scene in which he shows his typical inventiveness in having his character use a bicycle in various ways as a weapon, and another sequence in which he uses dishes, kitchen utensils, and other household implements to fend off a small army of formidable villains. Plus there are some impressive stunts in which he climbs rapidly up walls or stairways, and one in which he uses a long curtain to descend swiftly to the floor of a mall. These are not a patch on his greatest stunts (such as the slide down the building in Who Am I?; see video below), but they’re diverting nonetheless.
The story is typical fanciful Chan stuff. Jackie stars as a nerdy pen salesman who is dating his attractive, divorced, next-door neighbor, Gillian. They are contemplating marriage, but her three kids (one preschool age, one in grade school, and one in high school) hate him because he’s too boring. What they don’t know is that he’s actually a superspy on loan to the CIA from the Chinese government. And as it happens, although he has just retired from the agency, he has been thrust into a dire battle against Russian terrorists bent on using a biotech bacterium to destroy all the world’s oil supply except their own. The neighbor kids are drawn in as well when the boy accidentally downloads an important file from Jackie’s computer.
At least I think that’s what was going on. It hardly matters, of course, because what’s really important is that the kids see that Jackie is a great guy at heart, that he really loves their mother and loves them as well, and that if they’re ever under attack by a vicious gang of Russians, he’s definitely the right guy to have around. And of course the kids do eventually realize that Bob would make a great stepdad for them, because he’s Jackie Chan, after all. And naturally their mom then has an implausible turnaround and decides she hates him, so that they’ll have to convince their mom he’s all right after all.
The story centers on the theme of betrayal and questions about identity—very common matters in Chan’s body of work. There is a mole in Jackie’s former CIA team, and each of the members suspects the others at various times. That ties together the themes of betrayal and identity, of course, and the betrayal theme is picked up in the family story as well, when Gillian condemns Jackie for his presumed betrayal in putting her children in danger.
Also manifesting the theme of identity, of course, is Jackie’s dual life as a spy and undercover identity as a pen salesman. In addition, the two older of the neighbor children have secret identities of a sort: the grade-school boy is a science geek but has inner strength, courage, and resourcefulness which he discovers through his adventures with Bob.
The high-school daughter, Farren, has a rather more serious identity problem, in addition to the usual woes of adolescence. She was born of a previous marriage of her father’s, and although her stepmother treats her well and her siblings don’t seem to have any notion that she’s anything other than a blood relative, she feels as if she really doesn’t belong in the family. Eventually Jackie is able to illustrate to her that what counts in making a family is not genetics but feeling love for one another.
It’s a sweet, charmingly unsophisticated moment typical of Chan’s films, the very sort of thing that infuriates critics and ensure bad reviews. Instead of taking the trouble to understand and appreciate this sort of bourgeois entertainment, they reflexively hate and condemn it for not being edgy enough. It’s right to appreciate brilliant, elevated films over formula fare such as The Spy Next Door, but it’s also important to recognize that films that appeal to less sophisticated members of the audience have their place as well, and it’s good if the values they convey are positive and they provide some interesting themes that will edify the viewer.
So, although the main story line of a spy having to deal with kids is obviously lifted from The Pacifier and the seemingly ordinary bourgeois man who is actually a superspy is reminiscent of True Lies, the lack of originality and preponderance of hokey elements are not what are most important about The Spy Next Door. It’s good fun and immensely goodhearted, and it stands for the right things. That ought to be worth something more than another rotten tomato.