Buried in the middle of Rush Hour, there’s a great scene that shows what a classic the movie could have been. Hanging out on a city sidewalk with Edwin Starr’s “War” blasting from a nearby building, Jackie Chan, a Hong Kong police detective on assignment in Los Angeles, starts to groove, singing along with the chorus. “War,” he mouths in an exaggerated pantomime, “What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.”
Chan’s companion is Chris Tucker, playing a motormouthed L.A. cop who’s been paired with Chan very much against his own wishes. But maybe at last he’s starting to warm to him. As the song progresses, Tucker corrects Jackie’s pronunciation of Starr’s various soulful growls and asks to be shown some of Chan’s trademark martial arts action. Before long, the two cops are practicing their moves on one another and quite literally dancing their way up the sidewalk. The rhythm of the music accents the physical banter of these two terrific comedians, and it’s one of the most effortlessly pleasurable sequences of the year.
The charm of such a scene spotlights the film’s inspired casting, and points toward what Rush Hour is too often lacking — an opportunity for the two leads to improvise and relax, rather than working their way through a tedious “action comedy” script. Tucker is underrated as a physical comedian because of his overpowering blabbermouth persona, and Chan’s comic skills are still undervalued in favor of his status as action daredevil. Put the two of them together, and you’ve got not just a credible action picture, but the makings of a first-rate comic team. Unfortunately, Rush Hour puts them in a second-rate comedy that’s wrapped around a third-rate action movie.
The story is your standard kidnapping yarn, with the daughter of the Chinese Consul kidnapped by a notorious Hong Kong criminal and Chan’s Detective Inspector Lee sent to America to help crack the case. The FBI, of course, doesn’t want Lee on the case, and Tucker’s LAPD Detective James Carter winds up with the assignment of babysitting Lee to keep him away from the investigation. Naturally, the two of them wind up embarking on their own investigation, with no surprises along the way. Tucker’s overconfidence gets him in trouble with the very lethal Chinese villains, Chan’s naivete gets him in trouble with the roughneck crowd Tucker travels in, and eventually the two of them will embarrass the FBI by fingering the bad guy and rescuing the little girl. Elizabeth Pena shows up along the way as an explosives expert who gets tapped later to wonder whether she should cut the red wire or the green wire when defusing a bomb.
Any of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong police movies are superior to this in terms of story and action choreography. Chan and Tucker are very good for the screenplay, but the screenplay doesn’t flatter them. (Tucker does, however, get a few very funny lines.) In an action movie, the inspired choreography of a few choice set pieces can make up for a lot of deadweight in the story department. But director Brett Ratner (who helmed Tucker’s previous Money Talks, on which this is a big improvement) never figures out how to make things pop, and film editor Mark Helfrich (The Last Boy Scout, Showgirls) fails to maximize Chan’s brief but effective stuntwork in a handful of fight scenes.
It’s tough to neutralize Chan and Tucker entirely, and I’d imagine Rush Hour plays best in a theater packed to the gills, where audience laughter at Tucker’s shenanigans and Chan’s straight man antics stands a chance of becoming a cascading gloss over the film’s shortcomings. With every subsequent film, Tucker seems to be figuring out how to modulate his on-screen persona, his repertoire of tics, shuffles, and dance steps just becoming more fluid and inspired. Chan, meanwhile, could use some more vehicles that accent his charm as much as his daredevilry as he edges into middle age, and this one works nicely. The two of them work together so well in the film’s best scenes that the ending seems wide open for a sequel that could eschew the tired first-time-out formula. I would, however, urge Chan and Tucker to politely ditch Ratner and demand a real script. With a director as talented as his actors, Rush Hour 2 could be a knock-out.
Directed by Brett Ratner
Written by Jim Kouf & Ross LaManna
Cinematography by Adam Greenberg
Edited by Mark Helfrich
Starring Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic Panavision)