“Rush Hour” has a way of turning mindless guilty pleasures into conscience-pricking uneasy pleasures.
Of course, it all depends on your threshold of social consciousness, namely, how many ethnic put-downs you can take in 97 minutes.
The action-comedy starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker whoops up some genuine hilarity for a standard culture-clash-good-cop/bad-cop-reluctant-buddy formula film. Despite about a 20-year age difference, the co-stars complement one another.
The two meet after the 11-year-old daughter of the Los Angeles Chinese consul is kidnapped. Consul Han (Tzi Ma) calls in his old employee, Hong Kong detective Lee (Chan), who comes across the Pacific to find the girl who was his student. The glaringly Anglo FBI agents don’t take kindly to a “foreign detective” in their midst, so they call the LAPD to run interception and take Lee for a tour. The LAPD chief, in turn, gleefully hands off the baby-sitting assignment to detective Carter (Tucker) as a punishment for his rabid-dog approach to law enforcement.
This is Chan’s first American production in 15 years. But the film really belongs to Tucker, who regards scripts the same way Chan regards a safety net. Action barely speaks louder than words, especially when those words are shooting out of Tucker’s rapid-fire mouth. While his nasal yap in overdrive makes him sound like some unholy mix of Joe Pesci and Richard Pryor, the guilty pleasure comes from watching him soar to new depths of shameless brashness.
The seat-squirming comes from swallowing a constant barrage of Chinese-oriented slurs: “Rice-A-Roni, ” “Panda Express.” Sure, it could have been twisted product placement; in that case, Kikkoman soy sauce lost out. It’s too bad “Rush Hour” didn’t follow up on its early momentum, satirizing everything from institutions to sexual harassment to race. When his partner Johnson (Elizabeth Pea) berates Carter for his lack of teamwork, he retorts, “The LAPD is the most despised cops in the free world. My own mother, she’s ashamed of me. She tells everyone I’m a drug dealer.”
Black culture gets some slap-in-the-face time as well, with Carter’s territorial possessiveness about music (“You don’t ever mess with a black man’s radio”) to his criminal family closet. Tucker, though, controls the bantering. If ethnic humor is truly equal opportunity, it should have lobbed a few at Carter’s beleaguered Cubana partner or the supercilious Anglo FBI agents.
Part of the problem might be Chan’s restraint. His nervousness with speaking English and Tucker’s runaway improvisation largely explain the straitlaced portrayal of Lee, whose brow alternates between being furrowed with concern and confusion. Where Tucker let fly with the words, Chan should have been able to do so with his body. He still delivers the action with its usual graceful economy, but it’ll seem relatively tame for Chan fans. Thank the insurance agents for pulling watchdog duty on the set.
Director Brett Ratner adopted the Jackie Chan outtake tradition. Death-defying stunts are scarce, so it’s mostly watching both co-stars trip over their mouths. Fans will see the Chan charm emerge more in these few seconds than the entire movie.
Actually, truth be told, “Rush Hour” isn’t a Chris Tucker or Jackie Chan movie. It belongs to the utterly engaging Julia Hsu, as the 11-year-old rebellious victim. She enlivens the screen for the brief moments she’s on, whether punching Chan in the gut, lip-syncing or planting both feet on kidnappers’ jaws. And I’d match her mouth against Tucker’s any day; plus, she’s bilingual. Maybe the three stars can do a “Home Alone” retread.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times