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The Spy Next Door -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- It's been over 30 years since Jackie Chan supplanted Bruce Lee as film's reigning martial-arts superstar. Now in his 50s, Chan tries to broaden his audience with the kid-oriented "The Spy Next Door," appealing directly to the "Kung Fu Panda" crowd with mixed results. Directed by Brian Levant and written by Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer and Gregory Poirier, "Spy" is entertaining in spots but too obviously low-budget. The film faces so-so returns.

The opening features clips from some of Chan's recent films before speeding briskly through a nicely-staged fight pitting the star, playing CIA agent Bob Ho, against villain Poldark (Magnus Scheving). Ho's athleticism and James Bond-like gadgets play perfectly to Chan's strengths and fans should enjoy seeing how the star has adapted old routines for new purposes.

But the plot soon shifts to Ho's retirement to a suburb in the Southwest, where he dons Clark Kent spectacles in his guise as a "pen importer." Ho pines for next-door single mom Gillian (Amber Valletta), but she worries that her kids won't accept him. Older siblings Farren (Madeline Carroll) and Ian (Will Shadley) sneer at Ho, while the younger Nora (Alina Foley) is the first to suspect that he may be more than what he seems.

Ho offers to babysit when Gillian is called away, only to learn that Poldark has escaped from custody and is once again a threat to the nation's security. What's worse, Ian inadvertently downloads a deadly computer program, putting the kids and Ho in peril. Struggling to protect the children and capture Poldark, Ho is forced to reveal his background as a secret agent and to call upon the kids to help defeat his enemies.

Most of "The Spy Next Door" is pretty tired stuff from "Pacifier"-style slapstick to comic relief delivered by, of all people, erstwhile country star Billy Ray Cyrus. Scheving and his cohort Katherine Boecher display the proper spirit, but everyone else, Chan included, seems stiff and listless.

The star has worked with kids before, in the Hong Kong production "Rob-B-Hood" for example, and will soon be seen in a remake of "The Karate Kid." For much of this film though, he is clad in unattractive clothes and forced into dumbed-down situations. It's also hard to understand his English at times, a crucial drawback in a PG comedy.

Chan can be an extremely appealing performer. When his old magic breaks through he can still thrill viewers. In the best such instance, Chan does a sensational bit with some chairs while helping demolish a Chinese restaurant during one battle, something that will delight kids as much as their parents.

Opens: Jan. 15 (Lionsgate)