Even as new kids movie star Ice Cube takes over Vin Diesel’s XXX role, the once promising star of the Riddick franchise here descends into a horrific holding pattern. In The Pacifier, thick-necked, one-raced Diesel plays Shane, a Navy SEAL assigned to babysit a family of kiddies while their mom Julie (Faith Ford) is away trying to guess her never-home-but-still-beloved-and-now-dead scientist husband’s secret password. It seems that the very idea of the mission — he only does diapers because he’s been assigned — makes father-figurehood a matter of national security. Go team.
Shane is, of course, a terrible parental stand-in at first, because the deal is, such domesticity is strictly girls’ territory. And Shane, you know, is all man. Still, he soldiers on, even when the baby’s nanny, a horrifying witchy sort named, pathetically, Helga (Carol Kane, looking as frighteningly bedraggled and truck-slammed as she ever has) walks out. She’s a quitter, by Shane’s standards, but clearly, the scheming kids — including cheerleader Zoe (Brittany Snow) and aspiring actor Seth (Max Thieriot) — know how to push Home Alone-ish buttons. That the physical damage and indignities they plan for Shane befall Helga only makes their machinations seem cruel.
Without Helga, Shane turns into an especially egregious Major Dad, barking orders as his “recruits” look on with a mix of practiced disinterest and absolute, unhideable horror. “We’re gonna do it my way,” he grunts, “no highway option,” not incidentally, the same line he uses on nefarious threats to the U.S. in an early scene that establishes two things that hold for the duration of the film: first, Shane is an expert pain inflictor, and second, Diesel and everyone involved in this project have taken bad-acting pills. Indeed, the performances — or rather, line readings — are so conspicuously awful that you might imagine they were doing it on purpose, though to what end is unclear. Maybe acting is too domestic.
The assignment ends up lasting more than the couple of days initially laid out. And so Shane undertakes not only to look after the brood, but to reshape them, to improve their lives by ordering them. This entails meeting with the school principal, Claire (Lauren Graham, who so needs to hire a new agent: what was she thinking by signing on for this?), who happens to be Navy trained, and so, you guessed it, the ideal match for the romantically ignorant Shane. (He’s been so dedicated to his “country,” he’s never had time for another relationship.) Claire is sensible, sweet, and hard-ass all at once, all appealing to Shane, and she’s rather touched by his decision to watch the kids all day at school, with infant strapped to his chest while he monitors the others through binoculars and tracking devices.
When Zoe and Seth find a way to send their locked-down wrist devices into the sewer, Shane takes off with a vengeance, imagining all sorts of disaster has befallen his charges. He emerges from the sewer gunked up with putridity, then makes his way back to the house so he make a smelly entrance and declaration of his outrage and the resulting new rules. The image — the kids and the extraordinarily attentive principal, waiting in the living room for Shane’s return, all holding their noses — says precious little about the film, which has nowhere to go now, though it does suggest something about the state of Diesel’s career, also looking quite stalled.
To pass the time then, he pursues Shane’s limited agenda, soothing Zoe’s distress over the loss of her father (this being the only display that anyone makes concerning the dead guy) and aiding Seth in his daily struggles with the school bully, in this case, the Vice Principal and wrestling coach Murney (Brad Garrett). Taking down this goon apparently makes Shane a real man in Seth’s eyes.
Worse, the plot takes up an hysterical war-on-terror theme that would be comic if it weren’t so pathetic. In between learning to appreciate one another and cleaning the house for mom’s return, Diesel and kids do battle with ninja-suited North Korean spies (Denis Akiyama and Mung-Ling Tsui) and a highly predictable traitor — if you don’t spot him within two minutes, you’re just not paying attention, which is, frankly, the healthiest approach to this utter embarrassment.