Jackie Chan's American fans--and I'm one of 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 Eighties, 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 to Americans--failed to win theatrical release here (it heads straight to cable this 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 PD detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) and Hong Kong PD detective Inspector Lee (Chan), the plot kicks into gear when bad guy Sang (Ken Leung) kidnaps the eleven-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.
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You know the drill: At first Lee and Carter don't get along, but they eventually bond. 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 wit and excitement. 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 great action directors--on the set. The star doesn't get an official credit, but co-producer Jonathan Glickman says Chan choreographed the opening Hong Kong action scene, and while there's no way to determine how much direct input Chan had in the American fights, 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. A hanging-from-a-bus bit has Tucker doing a pale imitation of Chan from Police Story. Another scene, in which the two cops take on a roomful of evil henchmen, is a conflation of numerous Chan routines, most notably one from Operation Condor.
It's too bad Chan had to play second banana to motormouth Chris Tucker. Maybe there'll be a sequel, with Chan taking over the lead role.
Directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Jim Kouf and Ross Lamanna. Starring Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Ken Leung, Elizabeth Pena and Tzi Ma.