CAPTIVES: Will Shadley, left, and Jackie Chan run into trouble after Shadley… (Colleen Hayes / Lions Gate )
On the ground or twirling in a stunt harness above it, Jackie Chan brings an air of determined good cheer to even the most metallic of clunkers. "The Spy Next Door" proves this. Chan's new all-ages vehicle is smooth like oatmeal. It's hard to imagine anyone being offended, except fans of good comedy.
This is "True Lies" without the striptease or the Arab-maiming. On loan to the Central Intelligence Agency from the Chinese government, Bob Ho (Chan) is a superspy who, by day, masquerades as a mild-mannered pen importer. He is courting Gillian (Amber Valletta), a divorced mother of three whose serene under-reaction to her brats' bratty brattiness is the plot's biggest mystery.
Sullen older daughter (Madeline Carroll) and aggravating, "Octopussy"-referencing son (Will Shadley) vow to get rid of the opposition, even though the younger daughter (Alina Foley) knows mom's boyfriend is a fine fellow. Why are they so hard on Bob? Because he isn't cool. Because there's no story if they don't.
"The Spy Next Door" operates on familial bonding by way of humiliating pranks, which in better circumstances might go by the name of slapstick. Baby-sitting the kids while his sweetie's away, Bob ends up getting roped into the pursuit of Russian badskis trying to control the world's oil supply.
Soon the kids are ensnared in the espionage, and Magnus Scheving, who may be familiar to some of you as "Sportacus" on the TV show "LazyTown," must retrieve a digital file accidentally downloaded by Gillian's son. Billy Ray Cyrus plays the CIA's least likely agent. George Lopez is Bob's supervisor. The director is Brian Levant, whose drab visuals match the repartee.
A little too much of the movie takes place inside Gillian's suburban house. It's a big deal when someone drives to an empty warehouse facility in this thing. Chan's lines include the expected linguistic manglings ("You're chopping my bust!" instead of "You're busting my chops!") and peculiar stress rhythms ("Why did you tell them! That I was your bodyguard!"). Now and then, the star executes a little something special -- with a stunt bike or a folding chair, for example -- and you think: Chan still has it.
Even when the material conspires to take "it" away, he still has it. My son and his friend, both 9, liked the movie a lot, for the record. I chalk this up to Chan himself, whose kinetic athleticism may be less than it was a couple of decades ago, but, honestly: Isn't yours?