If you’re disappointed that Vin Diesel never made a sequel to his 2005 family action-comedy “The Pacifier,” here’s your choice to get another dose. True, “The Spy Next Door” stars Jackie Chan rather than the bald bruiser, and instead of a Navy SEAL babysitting five kids, we have a Chinese agent working with the CIA looking after the three of the neighbor he’s romancing while she’s away. But it’s essentially a retread in all but name. And it’s even worse.
Of course, like all of us Chan is putting on years, so it’s not surprising that he should be looking for less strenuous work; the stunts here aren’t nearly as flamboyant as they once were. What’s stayed pretty much the same is Chan’s acting ability—rudimentary at best—and his English proficiency—ditto. Still, they’re adequate to the modest demands of this script, in which he plays Bob Ho, who pretends to be a milquetoast suburban pen salesman while finishing up his duty as a colleague of American operatives Glaze (George Lopez) and Colton (Billy Ray Cyrus), capturing villains like Russian saboteur Poldark (Magnus Scheving). He’s just about to retire, and hopes to marry his neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta). But she’s unaware of his real job, and her three kids—rebellious teen Farren (Madeline Carroll), precocious geek Ian (Will Shadley) and ball-of-fire little Nora (Alina Foley)—don’t like him.
So when Gillian’s called away to be with her ill father, Bob volunteers to stay with the children, which gives them a chance to gradually bond. Unfortunately, Poldark escapes, and he and his henchmen come after Ho, who he thinks has a computer program that reveals his plot to corner the world oil market. Bob and the kids have lots of adventures avoiding, and eventually recapturing him and his crew while foiling his dastardly scheme. And of course Gillian overcomes her misgivings and accepts the kids’ newfound affection for him as proof they should wed.
There’s nothing remotely original about any of this, or the traitor-in-the-CIA subplot that pops up along the way (another thing in common with Diesel’s picture). But pre-teen audiences may be amused by chintzy spy gizmos that seem left over from “Inspector Gadget” and by the cartoonish action, and perhaps by the Boris Badenov-Natasha Fatale act done by Schevig and Katherine Boecher as his aide-de-camp Creel.
But even Chan’s most devoted fans are likely to find the level of humor pretty juvenile, and Chan’s physical business isn’t up to his old standard, either. (Even the inevitable outtakes are comparatively weak.) Brian Levant’s direction is flaccid, perhaps the result of trying to camouflage the star’s acting limitations by surrounding him with people even less skilled than he is. One expects amateur night from Cyrus and Lopez—and they don’t disappoint in that regard. But Valletta acts like the model she is, and Carroll, who was actually impressive in “Swing Vote,” is encouraged to come on too strong here. As for Shadley and Foley, let’s just say that they mug as though performing in an elementary school talent show. The production, by contrast, is merely bland, with cinematography by vet Dean Cundey that isn’t much above TV sitcom quality.
And “The Spy Next Door” feels like it belongs on television; it would have been a perfect family-channel cable movie. As matinee fodder for desperate families in theatres, it could be worse. But not much.