After fifteen years of trying, Jackie Chan finally broke into the U.S. market with Rumble in the Bronx and Jackie Chan’s First Strike; but it wasn’t until Rush Hour that he really connected with mainstream American audiences. The earlier two films were essentially camp chop-sockies packaged for Westerners, but Rush Hour, with its high production values and Lethal Weapon–style cop-buddy formula, is pure Hollywood formula moviemaking, pairing Jackie with the unlikeliest of partners: abrasive comic Chris Tucker.
The theory seems to have been that Tucker (Money Talks, The Fifth Element), whose fast-paced, high-pitched chatter sounds like an Eddie Murphy record played at 78 rpm, would compensate for Jackie’s so-so English. (Rush Hour was the first film in which Jackie worked up the courage to deliver his lines in English, as opposed to dubbing into English afterwards from a script.) Tucker’s self-aggrandizing attitude and outrageous banter made an obvious contrast for Jackie’s self-effacing, all-business supercop, and it was hoped that the clash of Hong Kong and the ’hood might somehow create something new and fresh.
Well, it wasn’t new, but it was reasonably fresh. Certainly Jackie and Tucker each seemed to be enjoying themselves, and audiences responded enthusiastically to their odd-couple synergy. There was a plot of course — a hackneyed trifle involving kidnapping and a collection of priceless Chinese artifacts — but it gave the stars plenty of room to mug and goof, to explore the esoteric worlds of urban pool halls and Chinese takeout joints, to argue over the merits of the Beach Boys and the lyrics to Edwin Starr’s Vietnam-era anthem "War."
The setup: Jackie plays Inspector Lee, a respected hero cop with the Hong Kong police. Tucker plays Detective Carter, a disgraced maverick of the LAPD. Although opposites in practically every way, the two have one thing in common: Like all stars of buddy films, they prefer to work alone.
What brings them together, albeit indirectly, is the kidnapping of the daughter (Julia Hsu) of the Chinese consul to the United States (Tzi Ma). Lee is a personal friend of the consul and his daughter, and the consul insists on having Lee flown to the States to assist the FBI in the investigation. That’s when the FBI contacts the LAPD and brings in Carter — not to assist in the investigation, as Carter originally thinks, but to keep Lee occupied and away from the case.
This leads to a clever string of scenes in which Carter tries to keep track of Lee while Lee tries to get to the Chinese embassy. A brief stunt sequence involving a number of vehicles and a street sign is less energetic than a typical Jackie Chan stunt, but stands out for its exceptionally effortless grace. Then there’s a funny bit where Carter and Lee each draw guns on the other, leading up to an unexpected visual punchline. Finally, Carter actually handcuffs Lee to his steering wheel, which does slow Lee down — but not nearly as much as it does Carter.
Eventually, of course, Lee and Carter must learn to work together, respecting one other’s methods and abilities, blah blah blah. Along the way they get some help from a female Hispanic bomb-squad trainee (Elizabeth Peña), whose introduction into the story guarantees that before all is said and done there will be a bomb that needs deactivating. Along the way, of course, there are more action scenes: brawls in pool halls and Chinese restaurants, and a climactic showdown in an exhibition hall where Jackie must first try to beat up bad guys while protecting priceless Chinese artifacts before executing a grand finale stunt as boldly conceived as anything he’s ever done.
Rush Hour’s main weakness is its miscalculation in applying its stars’ assets. For some reason, director Brett Ratner (The Family Man) saw fit to rope in Jackie’s action scenes to short bursts of a minute or less. That’s like hiring virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma and then rationing him no more than a single sheet of music at a time. (The film’s first scene gives Jackie more room to do what he does than anything else in the rest of the movie.)
What’s more, Ratner doesn’t know how to shoot Jackie: Yes, many martial-arts movies use lots of close-ups and rapid cuts — because they’re trying to make an ordinary actor (say, Keanu Reeves) look as good as Jackie Chan. When you’re really shooting Jackie Chan, you cool it and let the audience get a good look. Duh.
But while Jackie is held back, Tucker is given free rein to be
as over-the-top as he wants, which is sometimes funny but more
often merely crude and annoying. Tucker has some good material; I
cracked up when he remarked on the lack of prestige at the LAPD:
"We’re the most hated police force in the whole free world. My
own mama ashamed of me — she tells everybody I’m a drug dealer."
But other jokes fall flat, and not everyone will be amused by his
foul mouth, or by his constant slurs against Lee (
Another aspect that may be troubling to some viewers is the kidnapping plot itself, which begins with an ambush scene in which a driver is shot and the consul’s daughter is snatched onto a motorcycle and carried off, and ends with a tense standoff in which the girl has been blindfolded and strapped into a vest wired with explosives that can be detonated by remote control. It was partly these elements, described as "nasty menace to a child" by the U.S. bishops Office for Film and Broadcasting in their review of the film, that earned the film’s "O" (morally offensive) classification from that body.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that the movie does try to soften this aspect by making Hsu a feisty little thing who resists her kidnappers and later joins Carter in shouting defiant mockery at the villain even while wearing the explosive vest. Different people will have different tolerance levels for this sort of thing.
All things considered, for a typical American moviegoer who likes action movies but knows nothing about Jackie Chan, Rush Hour probably isn’t a bad place to start. It goes down easily enough, and afterwards, if you decide you like what Jackie does and want to see more, you can look into other films like Jackie Chan’s First Strike and Operation Condor. (Do not consider renting The Legend of Drunken Master. You aren’t ready.)
Rush Hour 3 is a half-hour of brilliance, preceded by an hour of dreck. That’s a roughly comparable dreck-to-brilliance ratio to the first two Rush Hour movies, I guess, and par for the course for Jackie Chan’s Hollywood films (and a fair number of his Asian ones). It’s just that the earlier Rush Hour movies are hit-and-miss throughout, whereas Rush Hour 3 is basically non-stop missing for an hour, saving all its hits for the end.
Rush Hour 2 follows so closely in the footsteps of its hugely successful predecessor that an actual review is practically unnecessary.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.