Jackie Chan's American fans--and I include myself among them--have suffered through a nervous 1998 so far. The momentum the star earned with the 1996 release of Rumble in the Bronx has seemed to dissipate steadily: An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, the first American production to employ Chan since the '80s, turned out to be a debacle; Mr. Nice Guy, the most recent of his movies to be released stateside, did mediocre business; and his latest Hong Kong film, Who Am I?--shot almost entirely in English to increase its appeal for Americans--failed to win theatrical release here (it went straight to cable last week).
Rush Hour, Chan's first American star vehicle in more than a decade, could well be the film that either makes or breaks his Hollywood career. So it's a relief for me to say that it delivers on almost all fronts: It's probably the year's funniest action comedy.
After a pair of prologues that introduce the two protagonists, Los Angeles police Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) and Hong Kong police Detective Inspector Lee (Chan), the plot kicks into gear when bad guy Sang (Ken Leung) kidnaps the 11-year-old daughter (Julia Hsu) of an L.A.-based Chinese consul named Han (Tzi Ma). Han, a former Hong Kong police commissioner, flies in the trusted Lee to investigate.
Unfortunately, the FBI, already on the case, doesn't want some outsider poking around on its turf; at the same time the agency can't openly defy the Chinese diplomat. To neutralize Lee the feds decide to assign a patsy to babysit him and keep him as far away from the case as possible. It's a job too demeaning for an FBI agent, so they recruit Carter, an unpopular loudmouth, for the task. Carter is so determined to join the FBI that he agrees to this rotten assignment, though he exhibits minimal enthusiasm.
An outline of the rest of the plot would contain no real surprises. You know the drill: At first Lee and Carter don't get along, but they eventually bond while engaging in cultural exchanges and trading ethnic jibes; as the FBI's negotiations with the kidnapper go awry, the two cops must work together to save the day; all the bad guys die; all the important good guys survive; and the world returns to the status quo.
While there's nothing original in Rush Hour, it runs through its well-worn paces with both wit and excitement. (Thank God there's no forced romantic subplot. The two women with speaking roles are both toughies: the kidnap victim, who's presented as both defiant and resourceful, and a competent cop--played by Elizabeth Pena--who has a contentious but ultimately affectionate friendship with Carter.)
The primary source of humor is your basic fish-out-of-water culture clash, a staple since (at least) 1982's 48HRS. Since the action takes place in the United States, most of these shenanigans occur at Lee's expense, although Carter also experiences some problems when he has to venture into Chinatown.
Director Brett Ratner (last year's Money Talks) handles the comedy and action equally well. For the latter he had the advantage of having Chan--one of the all-time great action directors--on the set. While the star doesn't get an official credit, coproducer Jonathan Glickman says that Chan choreographed the opening Hong Kong action scene. There's no way to determine how much direct input Chan had in the American fights, but his indirect influence is obvious. As Ratner coyly puts it, "We have six or seven scenes in the picture that won't look unfamiliar to Jackie Chan fans." I'll say: A couple of them are almost carbon copies of sequences from Chan's Hong Kong work.
While this material certainly "won't look unfamiliar to Jackie Chan fans," its inclusion is a good thing. Few American filmgoers will recognize it, and it marks the first time an American director has presented Chan doing what Chan does best.
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If there is any real problem with Rush Hour, it is the balance between the two stars. Chan was reportedly unhappy on the set, and it's easy to imagine why: Essentially, his role is secondary to Tucker's--a choice that was doubtless made for commercial, not aesthetic, reasons. Chan has long realized the necessity of jump-starting his Hollywood career by playing the partner of an established American star. (Over the years he has almost been paired up with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, among others.) But his considerable--if well-deserved--ego may have been injured by having to settle for Tucker. Chan, veteran of more than 50 films and the greatest star Asia has ever known (not excluding Bruce Lee), playing second banana to a minor star with only a handful of credits? It has to hurt.
For his part, Tucker is quite good here, but, as in The Fifth Element (1997), a little bit of him goes a long, long way. His screeching motormouth persona can grow wearisome very quickly. (One of the reasons 48HRS. worked so well was the modulation and depth of Eddie Murphy's performance--he was a motormouth, but he didn't screech.)
Still, I hope that Rush Hour gives Chan's Hollywood career the boost it needs; I also hope that next time out he gets to play the principal protagonist. Rush Hour ends with an obvious setup for a sequel--Carter going to Hong Kong for a vacation, flying off with Lee. If there's a Rush Hour 2, it'll be on Chan's turf--and with luck it'll be Chan's film.
Directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Jim Kouf and Ross Lamanna. Starring Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Ken Leung, Elizabeth Pena, and Tzi Ma. Opens Friday.