Monday, September 12, 2011

Rush Hour (1998)

Rush Hour
Dir. Brett Ratner

3 out of 5

Is there a more unlikely movie franchise of recent vintage than Rush Hour? Its sheer familiarity seems like a drawback in a world where it could easily be mistaken for a latter day Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon sequel. This time it's Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan playing mismatched constables who navigate their cultural differences and a lack of respect from the higher-ups. Rush Hour is a textbook buddy cop movie, right down to the central crime that involves a foreign diplomat (a Chinese consul general whose daughter is kidnapped by a Hong Kong crime syndicate). It's a slick, fast-moving caper that never underestimates the audience's desire for comfort food - not to mention its appetite for comic stereotyping.

Yet Rush Hour has a certain charm that's tied up in the unique talents of its leads. Chan has an undeniable charisma even his first non-dubbed English role, a redoubtable kung-fu jester who's one part Bruce Lee and one part Buster Keaton. Tucker, for his part, brings a bizarre screen presence that's far more valuable than his hit-or-miss improvisation. A mewling, high-pitched bullshit artist, he seems like a bigger fish out of water as a proud, hard-driving cop than Chan does as a native English speaker. Their affable animosity softens the tone of a surprisingly violent film, at least when measured by the film's exorbitant reliance on gunplay. Tucker and Chan draw their weapons - often on each other - at the slightest provocation but to little effect. By my count, the grand total of pre-climax handgun casualties numbers two unnamed police officers, one limo driver, and one tire. It's a bullet-to-injury ratio that only the A-Team would appreciate.

Despite capably menacing performances from Tom Wilkinson and a pre-Lost, bleached-blond Ken Leung, Rush Hour is a daffy, all-ages Chan project through-and-through. It's commendable as most of America's introduction to one of the world's singular screen talents (and less commendable as a launching pad for Tucker, who inexplicably became one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors despite a resume comprised exclusively of Rush Hour films since 1998). There are glimpses of Brett Ratner's tone-deafness, who seems to regard the cast's diversity as his free pass for unflattering exhibitions of Asian singing voices, but there's nothing excessively embarrassing here. That's mostly a testament to Chan's ability to sell the material with the same aplomb he brings to martial arts, using everything but the kitchen sink to get the job done, effortlessly turning a likely disaster into an unexpected success.

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