Reviewing kids’ movies is tricky. Critics are supposed to write reviews based on the merits of the work itself. But with entertainment specifically aimed at children, I think it’s important to mention whether or not the target audience is likely to enjoy it, even if, as a critic, I didn’t. So here is my review of “The Spy Next Door.”
Let’s start with the plot, such as it is. “The Spy Next Door” is about (warning: spoilers ahead!) a spy named Bob Ho, played by Jackie Chan. Bob has been living next door to divorced mom Gillian (Amber Valletta), who has three kids. Bob wants to retire and woo Gillian, who doesn’t know about his secret superspy life. Gillian has to leave town to care for her father, so she leaves the kids with Bob. Gillian’s son downloads a file from Bob’s computer, which leads to the kids being targeted by evil Russians. Bob saves the day, Gillian forgives him for lying about who he is and putting her offspring in danger, and all is good.
Everything happens very quickly, which is good because the dialog is at the “oh, we need a script?” level of writing. Lots of things don’t pass the “does this make any sense at all, even in a dopey movie?” test. Why does Gillian leave her three kids with a man she barely knows? Why is Bob so good at everything but he has no idea how to make oatmeal? And in what is perhaps the most random reference ever in a children’s movie (or maybe any movie), the file that Gillian’s son steals is called “G.B.H.” and the kid thinks that it’s a bootleg recording of GBH, the British punk band. It doesn’t matter, it’s just an odd choice. (Technically the band’s name is Charged GBH according to the Internets; I always referred to them as GBH, which is what they say in the film.)
As one would expect from a Jackie Chan film, the action sequences are pretty good, although Jackie’s thick accent makes him tough to understand at times. The rest of the cast is solidly mediocre, including Billy Ray Cyrus as Billy Ray Sidekick Colton James, and George Lopez as a CIA boss. Almost interesting is the relationship between superspy Bob and Gillian’s tweenage daughter. I say “almost” because the story doesn’t have much time to develop, although there are a couple of halfway decent scenes between the two characters.
For kids, none of this really matters. Why not? Because they will probably enjoy the movie anyway. It moves quickly, there are enough action scenes to keep their attention, and odds are they won’t care that the plot is so dumb. As a parent, I liked the fact that there wasn’t a lot of blood and guts. There is fighting, but nobody spurts red stuff and no limbs are lopped off.
Bottom line: “The Spy Next Door” is not a very good movie. But the two eight-year-old boys who accompanied me to a screening loved it. The film is also fairly short (89 minutes) and keeps the blood to a minimum, something that I’ve found to be increasingly rare these days. Does that make it a good movie? No, but it does make it more “family-friendly”, which in this case is relevant. I found it less painful to sit through than “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” That’s not saying much, but hey, sometimes you take what you can get.
Here is the trailer for “The Spy Next Door.” You can read other reviews of the film at Rotten Tomatoes.