The first time I saw a Jackie Chan film was at a New York Film Festival screening in the late 1980s, when they mistakenly programmed a movie that was actually entertaining.
Chan's Hong Kong films had a kinetic energy, a dare-anything aesthetic that made him seem like part Bruce Lee, part Buster Keaton. I interviewed him at the time, and one of his then-associates told me that they believed the key to breaking Jackie in Hollywood would be to team him with a recognizable American star.
It took Chan 10 years to reach that goal, when he was paired with Chris Tucker in Rush Hour and its sequels; he also teamed with Owen Wilson for a couple of films. Chan's subsequent Hollywood career has seen him slowly but surely dilute his brand until it is practically unrecognizable.
The nadir may be The Spy Next Door, a kid's film that's distressingly short on both wit and action. There's slapstick aplenty but, again, minus anything that's discernibly funny.
Chan plays Bob Ho, ostensibly a harmless suburbanite in Santa Fe who's been dating Gillian (Amber Valletta), the single mom next door. In fact, Bob is a secret agent from China, on loan to the U.S. and its thriving New Mexico national-security operation. There's he's been teamed with George Lopez (as his boss) and Blly Ray Cyrus (as his sidekick) in an operation to track down a sinister piece of Eurotrash named Poldark (Magnus Scheving).
Once Poldark is safely behind bars, Bob gets ready to head back to China, having rid the American southwest of terrorist threats. But then Gillian is called out of town on a family emergency - and enlists Bob to watch her kids. And isn't it always the way: Poldark picks that moment to break out of jail and come after Bob.
The kids are cable-movie cut-out figures: bratty teen daughter with a daddy complex for her long-gone divorced father; dorky tween son with a big mouth but no game; and a post-toddler who's young and imaginative enough that Bob can exercise his super-powers in front of her without fear that anyone will believe her if she tells.
Not that Chan actually gets to demonstrate much of his physical prowess. Most of the fight scenes are heavy on the pratfalls and bonks on the head, as opposed to the machine-gun speed that Chan's hands and feet are capable of (or once were; he is, after all, in his mid-50s). It's like watching Peyton Manning play in a powder-puff football game.
Only the very young and the very undiscriminating will find this enchanting - or even mildly entertaining. Obviously, Jackie Chan isn't immune to making one for the paycheck and phoning in his performance.
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