The Spy Next DoorredJackie Chan was once Asian cinema’s greatest special effect: a one man fireball of high octane chopsocky action – all rapid fists, scissor legs and spinning body parts. Now 55, the old gray mare, as they say, just ain’t what she used to be. Those famously elastic limbs don’t move so fast no more and the lickety-split pace has slowed to (at best) a brisk drive in a souped-up gopher.

Chan made the transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood in the mid 90s, and although he returns to the motherland every so often to make a home grown flick things have never been the same. American tripe like The Tuxedo, The Medallion and Shanghai Knights have increasingly shaped the once great star of Drunken Master and Police Story into a veritable kung fool. Jingle All the Way director Brian LeVant’s flimsy family flick The Spy Next Door is the latest in a seemingly endless array of embarrassments.

Bob (Chan) is a CIA operative by day; by night he dons daggy clothes and thick rimmed classes and pretends to be a mild-mannered homebody. He’s dating the woman next door, Gillian (Amber Valetta), and wants to take their relationship to the next level but her three young children don’t much like Bob (and who could blame them?) so when Gillian leaves to visit a sick family member Bob takes on babysitting duties in an attempt to establish rapport with them. He must put the kids to bed, make their meals, drive them to school and so on. Inadvertently everybody gets embroiled in a juvenile subplot involving Russian espionage and a plan to take over the world’s oil supply a yada yada.

The ol’ bones don’t move like they used to but Chan is determined to maintain his gung ho image, even as it pathetically evolves into smoke and mirrors, blaring falsification and tired rehashes. In most of The Spy Next Door’s action scenes Chan delivers not much more than a flick of the wrists and a wiggle of the hips, as if that’s supposed to tide us over.

In the more spectacular stunts he is aided by CGI and stunt doubles. Seeing somebody else clearly doing the legendary star’s dirty/dangerous work – remember this is a man who became famous because he did his own stunts, not because he could ever act – is a sad and sobering experience, akin to watching Pavarotti miming or Hendrix following guitar tabs. To say it breaks the legend is an understatement. Ol’ give-it-a-rest Chan seems determined to go the way of the stubborn old donkey in Animal Farm: “must…work….harder” as the mind continues well past the point at which his body can keep up.

Worse yet, the connecting-with-the-kids elements of The Spy Next Door’s storyline actually require some emotional substance, which Chan can’t deliver. He has all the charisma of a leg of ham and the emotional depth of a piece of dried chicken skin.

My advice to Jackie Chan is simple: bow out now before you get older and the scripts get even worse.

The Spy Next Door’s Australian theatrical release date: March 25, 2010.