Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Spy Next Door - Review

So I finally got to see "Spy Next Door" which has eventually worked it's way around to my local theater.

I must admit to being slightly at a loss for what to say about the movie and I have been trying to write this review for 2 days already. I did not go with the highest expectations of the film and I guess in that regard I was not disappointed but it is hard to say the movie was BAD but it is equally hard to say that it was good.

I went with the expectation that it was intended to be a kid's movie and I watched it with that expectation in mind. However the problem is that in the words of Shakespeare - this movie is 'neither fish nor fowl'. It is not a 'Jackie Chan' movie. It is not a movie that will particularly appeal to kids and it is not clever enough to be an adult movie either.

I was asked if I disliked the movie and the truth is no I didn't DISLIKE it - but I can't truthfully say I liked it either. It is a strange movie in that nothing in it is truly awful but nothing is truly good either. There is no 'magic'! And as a result it fails even to disappoint. I can't generate strong emotion about it because there is simply nothing to feel strongly about either good or bad.

So let's take a closer look at different aspects of the movie:

Casting: I have a problem with how this movie was cast. George Lopez as a comedian is very adult and not a casting choice that would appeal to kids nor encourage their parents to take their kids to see the movie.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lucas Till may have been cast because of their cachet with the Hannah Montana crowd but I highly doubt that Billy Ray without Miley is much of an attraction for the tween audience and Lucas Till simply is not in the movie enough to generate ongoing word-of-mouth interest. He was however just about the best thing in the movie. He got the biggest laugh from me the entire film and he really stood out on-screen (Hint from me - watch that kid - if he doesn't mess up he has a long career ahead of him).

I have serious issues with casting the heroes of kindergarten television as villains and casting Magnus Scheving as the villain in this movie, with his anger management issues and extremely poor impulse control with a gun is akin to casting Barney the Dinosaur in a remake of 'Gremlins' as the gremlin. Kids of that age are developmentally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality and if you are going to create yourself as a hero to that age group you have to be prepared to maintain the image. Kids simply do not understand why their hero is suddenly 'bad' and the blow can be devastating. It also leaves parents with the next-to-impossible task of trying to explain to their crushed and inconsolable toddler why Spartacus is shooting stuff and why this is bad and why they shouldn't copy him. This in my opinion was an extremely poor casting choice.

All in all the casting was uninspired and did not gel together to create that on-screen magic we look for in a good movie. Not one of the characters had enough screen time for you to establish a rapport with. They came and went in this montage of small takes that felt like poorly executed skits that did not fit together in a coherent whole.

Title Sequence: I feel the same way about the title sequence for this movie as I did about the title sequence for "The Forbidden Kingdom" - it just did not fit. It set up an expectation of an entirely different movie and to go from a montage of clips of old Jackie movies - which quite frankly did not fit together very well either in terms of look, style, or content and making them sepia did not help much to pull them together either - into a scene of urban tract housing that was reminiscent of 'Leave it Beaver' type sit-coms was just unsettling and failed entirely to set the tone for the rest of the film. I have no idea why they didn't just film a short series of clips showing Jackie flip-flopping between boring alter-ego salesman/nice guy next door and 'super-spy!' (which has to be said in the same tone as 'super-star!' from the movie "Superstar!") which would have established the dual role he is playing much better than the documentary style series of clips. Now if those were the opening for a documentary of Jackie's movies I would be extremely interested to watch the rest - as the opening for this movie? Naaah - did not work!

Stunts: Well what can I say other than the 'safety police' as Jackie calls them were out in full force on this one. I do not blame audiences for thinking Jackie is 'past it' when he is practically not even allowed to blow his own nose. The stunts on this were dull, entirely lacked the 'WOW LOOK AT JACKIE!' factor - more than likely because they were almost entirely NOT actually Jackie doing them. The one 'big' stunt - the escalator slide was so random and so derivative of Police Story/Rush Hour/Shanghai Knights that it was actually boring.

In addition the use of wires in this movie was so painfully obvious. I have absolutely no objection to the clever use of wires not only for safety reasons but also as Jackie uses them to enhance the ability of the actors (or non-ability as the case may be). However may I please inform film-makers - PEOPLE DO NOT FLOAT! Bad wirework results in gravity defying floating people and when simulating reality it is important that the effect of gravity on falling bodies remains evident. Jackie 'floats' effortlessly far too often in this movie.

The only 'stunt' in which the inimitable Jackie Chan magic was evident was with the frying pans. It was quick, funny, and well no other way to say it other than 'Jackie'. Even the thing with the fridge was so "Rumble in the Bronx" (shopping cart) / "The Medallion" (containers) / "Rush Hour" (containers) / "Rob-B-Hood" (getting in the car from the back) / well you get the idea!

I know Jackie choreographed the stunts for the intended audience and that is not the problem here - the problem is not the 'toning' down of the stunts to a level suitable for kids but rather how they were filmed, and executed. And even Jackie can only choreograph within the parameters set by the Director.

Gadgets: We have Jackie playing a super cool 'super-spy!' (remember how to say it?) and he doesn't have super cool 'super-spy!' stuff! If there is one area this movie could have come out shining and been really amazing and that was with the gadgets. Even "Agent Cody Banks" had better spy gear than this. I mean come on guys - where is the super-cool-every-boy's-dream 'super-spy!' stuff! A ring with a mini-cutter on it? HELLO it wasn't even a laser cutter!!! Fire out the lighter? SO LAST CENTURY! *SIGH* I think the film-makers forgot to bring out their inner child.

Plot/Dialogue: Yes this is is kid's movie and we don't expect the plot to be hugely genius - but why was an oil-eating virus/bacteria/formula bad? Now if the bad guy had created such a virus/bacteria/formula and decided to make a fortune for himself but having the only solution to oil spill disasters and then deciding it would be even better to create a few disasters instead of waiting for them to happen and then charging the earth for his solution ... wow so much better than the Russian cliché - the film-makers did remember the Cold War is over? And while I am having a small moan - what did the film-makers have against Jimmy Choo? Implying his shoes are 'plastic' is somewhat more than just a small swipe at him. And let's not contemplate the huge illogical inconsistency in tracking the formula being 'downloaded'. One would assume the CIA to have slightly better firewalls / IP disguising software than that - not to mention the line to Jackie's home computer would have been a secure dedicated line and not on an open server leaving nothing to 'track'. These days kids are so computer savvy that I am sure they were groaning out loud in theaters at that one.

The dialogue in this movie was just bad. It wasn't however bad enough to go over that line where bad becomes funny. It wasn't clever or snappy or witty enough to entertain adults accompanying younger children. And as for the line about marriage delivered by Billy Ray Cyrus? Hmmm yes GOOD philosophy to espouse in a kid's film! Would you like some tea with your cynicism today?

Getting back to a more generalized discussion of the film, when I first heard the premise of this film I was really excited and said 'Yay Jackie is finally making "The Pacifier"!'. "The Pacifier" was written specifically for Jackie but due to time constraints he was unable to do the movie which is when Vin Diesel was cast. I can still very easily picture Jackie in that role and I looked forward to this movie as being Jackie's chance to create that part for himself. In fact many elements of this film loosely remind me of "The Pacifier" - single mom, several kids, weird pets, mom is called away, unsuitable babysitter out of his depth coping with the perils of watching kids, protecting them from evil villains turns him from zero to hero in the kids' eyes .... sound familiar? However unlike "The Pacifier" which I still watch periodically with enjoyment - this movie just fails to bring the same magic to the table.

I mean OK you have to be a serious Jackie Chan/movie buff to appreciate the finer points in "The Pacifier" but just one example the family name is Plummer and Captain Von Trapp in the film "Sound of Music" was played by Christopher Plummer. "The Sound of Music" is also one of Jackie's favourite movies. It is small things like this that make the movie enjoyable to watch. Sadly there are no such moments in "Spy Next Door".

I have no idea how they succeeded but even Jackie was bland - I guess that he succeeded in being the boring pen salesman but he succeeded a little too well because there was no pizazz when he wasn't being the boring guy next door.

Overall the movie comes across as 'small'. I have the entire time been trying to pin down just exactly why this movie fails so spectacularly to be anything at all including being bad, and I think I have finally pinned it down - from beginning to end - it feels like no great effort was expended. It feels the entire time that 'good enough' was 'good enough'. Script - not great but 'good enough', stunts - not great but 'good enough', acting - not great but 'good enough' and there are just enough 'good enough's' to have resulted in a bland movie that never quite excites, never quite disappoints, and is just barely 'good enough'.


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