"All y'all look alike!"
Chris Tucker is looking well-fed. Sitting pretty on the cover of August’s GQ, the 28-year-old actor-comedian doesn’t look nearly so scrawny as he used to. It’s no wonder: he’s a superstar, just paid $20 million to co-star with Jackie Chan in a sequel to 1998’s boffo-surprise hit Rush Hour. This isn’t to say that Tucker shouldn’t be making this kind of money (though it is worth remarking that co-star Chan made “only” $15 million). After all, the first movie earned some $250 million worldwide, making it something of an industry benchmark, namely, the highest-grossing movie without white male leads. To its minor credit, New Line recognized. And, well, if studios are good at anything, it’s knowing how to pay, promote, and pacify their cash cows.
And Tucker is no overnight cash cow. The 28-year-old Decatur, Georgia native has shown and proved his willingness to take a dare, within limits. For, like many actors who start out in comedy (Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey), Tucker was right off identified as a particular persona, irreverent, mad-speedy, and ever-ready with the elaborate neck-rolls, gumby-body gyrations, and spastic vocals. Again and again, he’s been hired to deliver that persona, from his initial “hungry” roles (Johnny Booze in House Party III , Friday‘s Smokey and Dead Presidents‘s Skip [both 1995]) to his next-step, determined-to-piss-off-someone roles (The Fifth Element‘s Ruby Rhod and Money Talks’ Franklin Hatchett, both 1997). The fact that he executive produced Money Talks, helmed by Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, indicates Tucker’s own early understanding of what he had to sell and how best to sell it. As the outrageous, outraged black man whose efforts to stay out of trouble only ensure that he will be in it, he’s hit a (profitable) nerve. At a time when hypocrisy over racism is the cultural norm—when racial profiling is deplored but okayed (by high profile court verdicts), when bling-bling and booty spell success, and when minstrelsy is making a well-paid comeback—Chris Tucker’s simultaneously cool and calamitous pose makes an uncomfortable sense.
At once noisy and sympathetic, Tucker owes something to Murphy and Rock, Richard Prior and Redd Foxx, performers with something to say about their worlds. He also has P. Diddy’s gift for image management. After RH, he was predictably inundated with similar projects. But, he tells GQ, he took a breath and pondered his options. He left super-manager Michael Ovitz, turned down the Jamie Foxx part in Any Given Sunday (not wanting to play the “black athlete”), backed out of Black Knight (which then transmogrified into a Martin Lawrence vehicle, due out this fall), and appeared on the covers of swank mags such as GQ and Code. This past week, as part of the promotional blitz for RH2, he did his version of MTV’s Diary, wherein he demonstrates affection for his fans and dedication to his craft (“I work like James Evans on Good Times!”), by sneaking into his own movie, playing in a multiplex, to check how well it goes over. When a kid asks him to perform a “Chris Tucker” move, he politely refuses, saying the kid can probably do it better than he can. This suggests that Tucker understands his foremost function—as a screen onto which fans project their own desires and fantasies.
Currently, Tucker is shooting the long-in-the-works Guess Who’s President (a.k.a. Mr. President) in which he plays the first black U.S. president; producing and starring in the spy-comedy, Double O-Soul, and, oh yes, doing press for Rush Hour 2.
Like most sequels, RH2 does what the first film did, only louder and more extravagantly. A bigger budget allowed for more locations (Hong Kong, LA, and Vegas); a couple of “quality” players in supporting roles (John Lone as a triad boss, Don Cheadle as an informant who, for no clear reason, wears a cue and speaks Chinese); a rising star (Zhang Ziyi, essentially playing Jet Li’s part in Lethal Weapon IV, i.e., the earnest martial arts expert who doesn’t say much); and an old-school comedian (Alan King). None of these add-ons, however, does much to cover up RH2‘s essential banality. But what else can you expect? This is the way that film franchises tend to work: the dynamic of the first will be replayed unto death in subsequent variations.
RH2 opens with cop-buddies Carter (Tucker) and Lee (Chan) in full-on camaraderie, singing “California Girls” at the top of their lungs while cruising Hong Kong streets and looking for “moo shu”: flipping the original script, Carter’s on Lee’s turf. Within minutes, the Big Case descends on them as if from sequel heaven, something to do with counterfeit U.S. money, murders, and a Trump-like casino-owner named Steven Reign (King). To make the whole undertaking “personal” for Lee (as in the first film, his sense of honor is differentiated from Carter’s general raffishness), writer Jeff (Speed 2: Cruise Control) Nathanson includes a culprit who’s close to Lee, namely, his dead father’s former partner, Ricky Tan (Lone, though he hardly seems old enough to be Chan’s father‘s partner), now a criminal in league with Reign and backed up by fashionably female muscle, Hu Li (Zhang).
Lee and Carter bumble their way through the investigation, which conveniently takes them through a series of set-pieces, in a karaoke bar, a massage parlor, and a yacht in Hong Kong, a Vegas casino, etc. In each, the partners deploy race jokes, cultural misunderstanding jokes, and potency jokes. So, when he’s angry at his partner, Carter cries, “I’ll slap you so hard you end up in the Ming Dynasty!” or, “I’m from LA: we invented gangs!” Or again, after Carter’s raucous karaoke performance of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Lee tries to get him to be more discrete during their investigation, to follow his lead. In Hong Kong, he says, “I’m the Lone Ranger and you’re Toto,” to which Carter responds with peppery exasperation, “You mean Tito!”
But you know they’re just going through the motions of disagreement here, since their “chemistry” and mutual affection were well-established in the first movie. In fact, my favorite scene in RH2 both exaggerates and satirizes this relationship, when Lee, believing Carter to be dead, gets misty when he hears Puffy’s torturously overplayed pop-paean to Biggie Smalls, “I’ll Be Missing You,” on the radio. But for the most part, the movie does what most buddy-movie sequels do—it works overtime to reassure the audience of the buddies’ straightness. Sometimes this works by indirection, with the boys acting “gay” so you can laugh at their prissiness: Carter prances through a sewer because he’s scared of rats, or both characters contend with a flaming Versace clerk (Jeremy Piven channeling Branson Pinchot from Beverly Hills Cop). Other times, their heterosexuality is affirmed by standard manly-man activities: shooting, driving, running, kicking, ogling breasts. At the massage parlor, Carter slavers after an array of mute bikinied babes at the massage parlor (this bit is the film’s least imaginative by far: it’s as if they’ve stepped into a Jay-Z video, or more pertinently, a Ludacris video: see also his MTV movie plug, “Area Codes”). And Lee finds himself attracted to an undercover U.S. Treasury Agent, Isabella Molina (Roselyn Sanchez, tv’s Fame LA). Perhaps needless to say, Lee does not act on his attraction, being a nobly asexual Asian action star.
And this being an action comedy, sex is sublimated repeatedly into crazy violence. The massage parlor scene ends in a melee when Ricky Tan sics his karate-chopping goons on Lee and Carter, who, in turn, wage slickly choreographed retaliation, outfitted in miraculously affixed towels and little robes (Arnold already did this way back in Red Heat, but his incredible-hulked-up body wasn’t the revelation that Tucker’s newly developed physique is). Here, Carter performs as a kind of too-tall gangly double for the powerhouse Lee. Here again, their partnership is celebrated in their collaborative ass-kicking and satirized in a race joke: Carter whomps Lee in the face by accident, then declares in his own defense, “All y’all look alike!” The line neatly captures what’s at stake in their dynamic, which is designed to make fun of and profit from longstanding stereotypes.
And this brings us back to that phrase, “without white male leads,” as it marks a shift in movie making and marketing. Under other circumstances, it might be heartening to see a studio appreciate its black and Chinese leads, even if only in the interest of grossing more money. But really, such appreciation is behind the times, and reinforces same-old thinking: if white folks buy it (this being the sign of a “crossover” product), then producers will do it again, but only then. My question is: how can it be news to anyone that whites consume merchandise—music, movies, tv—featuring non-Caucasians? The question makes you wonder about what’s at the heart of the Rush Hour franchise’s comedy and the studio’s understanding of it. Comedy need not be subversive or even intelligent, to be funny, but rehearsing ancient insults hardly seems worthwhile.
Of course, the Rush Hours aren’t alone in this practice. Indeed, recycling and recontextualizing racist, classist, and sexist stereotypes is quite the fashion these days. So, you have The Animal‘s Guy Torrey and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back‘s Chris Rock playing hyper-irate black men who see racist offense in every trivial non-event. Call this the mainstreaming of the kind of stand-up material that makes white folks feel nervous (and excluded)—Rock’s “the difference between a black man and a nigger” routine from a few years back, or more recent work by Bernie Mac, Margaret Cho, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chapelle, and slam poet Beau Sia. The very excessiveness of the stereotypes, and the “ironic” self-consciousness it presumes, make faux-edgy fun for the films’ young, cross-over viewers, who can “get” all the punchlines, no matter their self-identifications. Hooray if this mainstreaming can bring cultures together, but let’s not fool ourselves: it begins and ends with those millions to be made.