Hong Kong Hollywood

'Rush Hour' is a pale imitation of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong hits.

Published September 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Trying not to laugh at Chris Tucker is like trying not to laugh at the smartass who was bent on talking out of turn in class; the quality of his material isn't as funny as his sheer brazenness. When Tucker starts flapping his lips and that high yammering voice -- a pneumatic drill on nitrous oxide -- comes out of him, there is nothing and no one that's going to shut him up. That's what makes Tucker funny. It's also what can drive you up the wall about him. There are probably ways to use Chris Tucker in the movies, but he needs to be directed with a whip and a chair.

In "Rush Hour," as an LAPD detective assigned to assist his Hong Kong counterpart Jackie Chan in retrieving a kidnapped little girl, Tucker is equal parts hilarious and wearisome. I broke up when he explained that his mother was embarrassed about him working for the LAPD ("She tells everybody I'm a drug dealer") and when he tried to intimidate Chan by using what Richard Pryor once called his "best black shit. That stuff that usually scare whitey to death." But he'd be a lot funnier if someone showed him how to play scenes within a normal human range.

Tucker and Chan don't bring out much in each other in "Rush Hour." The movie seems to proceed from somebody's notion that it would be hilarious to see a black guy and a Chinese guy working together. You can envision the story meetings: "So Jackie takes Chris to get some Chinese food ..." "Yeah! Yeah! and Chris asks the chef if he doesn't have some chicken wings or ribs!" (Poor Chris Tucker. How'd you like to try being believable as the only person in America who's never in your life tasted Chinese food?) Director Brett Ratner doesn't even work up much enthusiasm for the buddy-movie clichis. When these two mismatched partners finally learn to work together, the moment slides by with no sense of triumph.

Judging by "Rush Hour," Ratner is one of the new breed of creeps who know how to make a movie look slick and how to do to action sequences what the chef at Benihana does to a piece of sirloin. What he can't do is cut those sequences together so that they build in excitement or even show you where the actors are in physical proximity to one another. That's a particular liability in a Jackie Chan movie. Often Chan is framed so that we can't see his whole body in motion, and Ratner cuts so much that our eyes are still settling down to a new shot and Chan does some bit of business that blips by. (The excitement of watching someone who's lightning fast depends on having the time and the unobstructed view to see that he's lightning fast.)

After years of putting his body through torturous, insane stunts, Chan is starting to slow down. But Jackie Chan slower than usual is still one of the four or five most exciting physical performers the movies have ever seen. There are reasons why he should start to move beyond cop roles, besides the clichis of cop movies and the lousiness of his role here (the sight of Chan as the smiling, slightly bewildered foreigner is starting to seem very condescending). When Chan says he'd like to do comedy, I'd be willing to bet that most producers can't think of anything beyond slapstick. But there have to be other sorts of comedy that would be a good fit for somebody as charming as Chan. His best moments in "Rush Hour" are the modest, casual ones. When he steps out of a bus, somersaults gently across the roof of a taxi and slides into the open passenger window, it gives you a little lift; you feel that slight frisson you do when you watch someone like Gene Kelly lean back in an easy chair and you think it's the most graceful thing you've ever seen.

Now that Hollywood seems to have had its fill of releasing dubbed and recut prints of Chan's Hong Kong hits, all it can do with him is try pale imitations of those movies. But Hollywood calculation can't match the primitive eager-to-please quality that made those Hong Kong films refreshing; they were appealing because they were so free of irony. Chan is a one-of-a-kind performer: Bruce Lee crossed with Donald O'Connor in the "Make 'em Laugh" number from "Singin' in the Rain." Hollywood needs to stop treating him as if he were one of those fondue sets given as wedding gifts in the '70s: a foreign novelty shoved in a closet due to absolute cluelessness about what to do with it.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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