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The Spy Next Door Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

The Spy Next Door (2010) movie poster The Spy Next Door

Theatrical Release: January 15, 2010 / Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Brian Levant / Writers: Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer (story & screenplay); Gregory Poirier (screenplay)

Cast: Jackie Chan (Bob Ho), Amber Valletta (Gillian), Madeline Carroll (Farren), Will Shadley (Ian), Alina Foley (Nora), Magnus Scheving (Poldark), Katherine Boecher (Tatiana Creel), Lucas Till (Larry), Billy Ray Cyrus (Colton James), George Lopez (Glaze)

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and Kelvin Cedeno

Probably the one Asian actor who Western audiences would most recognize as a movie star, Jackie Chan has had an impressive career. Despite modest acting talents and a limited grasp of the English language, the 56-year-old Hong Konger has enjoyed longevity and prominence most would envy.

Chan began appearing in Chinese movies as a child, when he was part of a performance troupe proficient in martial arts and acrobatics. As a teenager, he did stunts in two of Bruce Lee's biggest hits. After some college and construction work in Australia, Chan returned to Hong Kong and blossomed into a star of martial arts films. His efforts in the early 1980s to break into the American market floundered, but success in his homeland franchises eventually earned him worldwide notice and 1998 buddy comedy Rush Hour solidified him as a viable US star.

Chinese spy Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) is not as milquetoast as he may seem. Not since "Jingle All the Way" has an action star with limited English skills looked so concerned in a mall. It's apparently director Brian Levant's trademark. These three kids -- Ian (Will Shadley), Farren (Madeline Carroll), and Nora (Alina Foley) -- aren't at all pleased to be watched by their mom's "boring" boyfriend.

Although a swift fighting style and daring stunts have remained his trademarks, Chan has proved comfortable incorporating such action into a variety of genres. His latest film, The Spy Next Door, is a contemporary family action comedy aimed squarely at American audiences. In it, Chan plays Bob Ho, a Chinese spy who has been working with the CIA. In one of cinema's least believable couplings, Bob has been dating next-door neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta) for months.
The beautiful single mom, abandoned with three kids, knows Bob only as a "pen importer", a mild-mannered cover he maintains with poindexter glasses and sweater vests. But things are starting to get serious and rather than come clean, Bob decides it's time to retire and settle down.

Of course, Bob and Gillian's romance is never going to claim more than a peripheral presence. Soon enough, we have a reason for Bob to take care of Gillian's kids; something about her father being hospitalized out-of-state. Needless to say, this is quite the challenge for Bob; each of the kids is a handful and not so crazy about their temporary guardian. The eldest, moody teen stepdaughter Farren (Madeline Carroll), wants to wear short skirts and be left alone. Middle child Ian (Will Shadley) is a liar and an overarticulate geek longing to be noticed by girls. Precious youngest Nora (Alina Foley) isn't yet old enough for school and must be otherwise engaged.

In light of the title and leading man, it should be obvious that Bob's days of high-tech espionage aren't over just yet. Evil Russians from his last assignment put him and the kids in danger, when one of them, in the film's most stupid contrivance, downloads a secret oil-eating formula onto an iPod thinking it is a cool, rare concert bootleg. These heavily-accented Russian baddies are the kind you'd expect during the Cold War. Their big running gag is that fugitive leader Poldark (unintelligible Magnús Scheving of Nick Jr. Icelandic import "Lazy Town") can't seem to find normal American clothes with which to blend in. Ha ha!

The main villains of the film are Russian baddies Poldark (Magnus Scheving) and Creel (Katherine Boecher). He just can't seem to find a normal American outfit, hence the look here. Meow! The children's mother Gillian (Amber Valletta) is a kitty cat woman in the film's Halloween-set climax.

The Spy Next Door is a throwback to the simple times of The Pacifier, with Chan's pint-sized Chinese power replacing Vin Diesel's all-American brawn. Like that 2005 film, this one tries to mine laughs from an unequipped man wackily struggling to prepare breakfast and put the kids to bed. It also looks to provide some heart with standard-issue child woes. It is successful on neither front and the world's most hyperactive musical score can't hide that fact.

Spy is blandly routine, lazily checking off every uninspired convention in the family filmmaker's book. For example, with obvious hopes of scene-stealing, animals factor into the melee: a turtle, a cat, and, as the expectedly nonstandard pet, a bacon-eating pig (it was a duck in The Pacifier).

Nothing more should have been expected from writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, whose most recent film collaborations include Blue Collar comedian vehicles Bait Shop and Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. Earning a screenplay credit alongside that team is Tomcats helmer Gregory Poirier, who doesn't seem to have applied any shine. It is almost a given that the film was directed by Brian Levant (Jingle All the Way, The Flintstones, Are We There Yet?), who relentlessly continues to do his part to give family films a bad name. Levant appears to be pining for a Lifetime Achievement Razzie.

It isn't a Jackie Chan family film until he's been tied up with some little ones. Prominently-billed sitcom fathers Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez play CIA agents in contact with Bob. Nice job looking the part, Billy Ray!

I can think of two redeeming factors to The Spy Next Door. The first is that the movie has the decency to go where few of today's major mainstream films dare: "so bad it's good" territory. This is somewhat hilariously bad. The funniest thing may be the reminder it offers of Chan's riotous defiance to learning English. On the one hand, you'd think someone making this much money from a nation would take the time to get a better handle on the prevalent language.
On the other, he's getting paid either way, so I can understand not needing to mess with a good thing.

Somewhat related, the other nice thing is that, as usual, Chan finds creative ways to liven up the inevitable fight scenes. My favorite ludicrous bit is when he beats up a Russian kid in a restaurant. From pool skimmer nets and ladders to folding chairs and bikes, Chan's brand of prop-based combat is never the kind where you can zone out, feeling you've seen it before. Even the Halloween afternoon finale, enlisting the whole family and as many Russian baddies, displays some forethought and calculation to its slapstick violence.

The film's poster art, one design of which has been barely retooled for home video, puts the downsized three kids in black spy clothing, something the movie never does. And yet that might be the second most deceptive thing about the cover, because Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez receive prominent billing. The sitcom dads are barely seen as CIA agents in a transparent mole subplot. (As if Cyrus and his caveman look could pass for a CIA agent.)

Released on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend presumably with the hopes of breaking out like Kevin James' 2009 PG action-comedy hit Paul Blart: Mall Cop, The Spy Next Door didn't catch on nearly as well. The film's final domestic gross ($24.3 M) was within $300,000 of the Chan Around the World in 80 Days' underwhelming 2004 total. While the budget and expectations were much lower here, the earnings don't point to huge things for Chan's next family-oriented release, Sony's summer The Karate Kid remake.

As one of the studio's rare family-friendly works, The Spy Next Door becomes Lionsgate's first in the industry's increasing commonplace Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack mold. A DVD identical to the one in this set is also available on its own for a few dollars cheaper.

Buy The Spy Next Door: Blu-ray + DVD Combo from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

BD: 1.78:1 Widescreen; DVD: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
BD: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (English)
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: May 18, 2010
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-25 & 1 DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Standalone DVD ($29.95 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though it's a fairly short movie, it's still surprising to see The Spy Next Door put on a single-layered DVD. Whether or not it's the result of the below-par bit rate and higher than usual compression, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer displays some bothersome grain and flicker. Even with the shortcomings, the picture quality is still pretty fine overall. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is of a higher caliber and regularly put to good use.

The Blu-ray's image seems fine given the source and its own single-layered status. It's becoming common for comedies (especially family ones) to pump up the contrast and saturation. This film is no exception, and that results in noise and crushed blacks. Still, it seems accurate, and the fine film grain present ensures this hasn't been scrubbed or tampered with. Detail is solid, and the enhanced colors never bleed. The choice of contrast mars the transfer from being completely satisfying, but at least filmmaker intent (even on a project like this) is honored here.

The Blu-ray's DTS-HD 5.1 MA soundtrack provides a stronger experience. Surrounds are used to a surprising degree. These vary between high-end action sequences and household item slapstick. Even dialogue sequences offer good ambience and atmosphere. Speaking of which, speech (even for Chan) sounds clear and doesn't get drowned out in either the extensive effects or periodic pop tunes. This is an unexpectedly exceptional mix.

Add "Segway Rider" to "Stunt Master and Mentor" as Jackie Chan takes a short ride with a little friend in front of what's clearly not a Waste Management truck. The unpredictably candid Alina Foley makes a goofy face in the middle of the "Adventures in Acting with the Kids..." featurette. Jackie Chan poses with a chair and a co-star (Lucas Till) in the blooper reel. The same shot's appearance at the start of the end credits displays the film's title logo.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The modest supply of extras begins with the featurette "Jackie Chan: Stunt Master and Mentor" (10:12). It expectedly extols the virtues of the leading man, but he, his co-stars, and director Brian Levant also share stories from production in between film clips and some behind-the-scenes footage.

"Adventures in Acting with the Kids of The Spy Next Door" (11:08) has Katherine Boecher talk (without her character's Russian accent) to her co-stars Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, and Alina Foley.

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The young'uns discuss how they got into the business and share advice, their experiences on the movie, and their aspirations. Six-year-old Foley repeatedly cracks up the group with her hilarious candor.

Last and least is the obligatory blooper reel (3:15), which is taken directly from the beginning of the end credits but without text intrusions. Besides reprising "Secret Agent Man" (which is mandatorily attached to the film's opening montage that actually samples some vintage Chan action flicks), the outtakes supply verbal and physical goofs and some bleeped profanity, much of it from Chan.

On DVD, "Also from Lionsgate" plays the same three trailers that load the disc, promos whose age reflects the studio's dearth of family titles: The Forbidden Kingdom, Wallace & Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death, and Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow. Blu-ray forgoes Wallace & Gromit, presumably because that's not available on BD here.

Happily, Lionsgate avoids one of the industry's tackier trends; no special features are kept exclusive to Blu-ray.

After a brief introduction, the DVD's sprightly main menu runs a montage on a spy kit surveillance screen next to gradually burning bacon. Submenus are silent and static. The Blu-ray's main menu is identical, while the pop-up interface expands upward and submenus cascade to the right. Digital beeps can be heard with every toggle of the BD's selections.

Lionsgate's combo packages the colorfully-labeled Blu-ray and bland gray standard DVD on opposite sides of a standard-sized blue keepcase. It saves plastic with ecological cut sections and wastes cardboard on a slipcover that simply copies what's below. A couple of inserts promote/defend Blu-ray and the studio-supported premium network EPIX. It seems worth mentioning that no digital copy of the film is offered, since that largely-unredeemed feature is usually a standard inclusion on other studios' combo packs.

Jackie Chan gives "The Spy Next Door" two frying pans up, which in China is the highest cookware score you can assign a film.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though not without some entertainment value (quite a bit of it, the unintended kind), The Spy Next Door is a fairly standard and stale family film with the reek of a third-rate production. This is better suited to Jackie Chan's talents than certain previous vehicles and he brings some spirit to the inevitable action sequences. But for most viewers, this will rank somewhere between painfully stupid and harmless mild fun.

Though deleted scenes are oddly lacking, the two included featurettes and recycled blooper reel do add some value. If you deem this as one for the family collection, it might make sense to spring for the combo pack and its dual format discs. But doing so, you'd end up with two more copies than you need.

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Related Reviews:
Jackie Chan: Around the World in 80 Days • Rush Hour 3 • Kung Fu Panda • Mulan (music video)
Madeline Carrol: Swing Vote | Amber Valetta: Premonition | Will Shadley: Dirty Sexy Money: The Complete First Season
Billy Ray Cyrus: Hannah Montana: The Movie • Hannah Montana: Miley Says Goodbye? • Hannah Montana: The Complete First Season
George Lopez: Mr. Troop Mom • Beverly Hills Chihuahua • Balls of Fury • Reno 911!: Season 6
Directed by Brian Levant: Jingle All the Way (Family Fun Edition) • Snow Dogs | Written by Greer and Bernstein: Max Keeble's Big Move
New: Extraordinary Measures • Peanuts 1970's Collection, Vol. 2 • The Jeff Dunham Show • Edge of Darkness
The Pacifier • Inspector Gadget • Inspector Gadget 2 • Get Smart • James Bond Blu-ray Collection (Vols. 1 & 2) • Mrs. Doubtfire
The Game Plan • Paul Blart: Mall Cop • G-Force • Space Buddies • Night at the Museum • Bedtime Stories • Old Dogs

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Clip from Channel 5's "100 Years of Chan" Jackie Chan Tribute:

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Reviewed May 15, 2010.



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