Chris Tucker is smart as Hell. Don’t believe it? Well, can you name another actor earning $25 million for doing the same thing he’s done for the last nine years – the EXACT same thing, mind you. In 1998, the African American comic moved from minor supporting roles in films like Jackie Brown and Dead Presidents to a starring stint alongside then hot Hong Kong action icon Jackie Chan. The movie, Rush Hour, directed by novice filmmaker Brett Ratner, went on to be a massive hit, spawning a sequel and a whole new career for the newly minted megastar. After Rush Hour 2 did similar boffo box office, Tucker’s professional path was clear: do nothing; wait around until the audience demands another dose of Detective James Carter; maximize the upfront money. It didn’t matter if Rush Hour 3 was a derivative take on the previous cross culture buddy pic. It would be time, once again, to give the people what they want.
And you know what – he’s worth it. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Rush Hour 3 is junk – witless, uncomplicated, consisting of disposable vignettes of vaudeville like burlesque followed by borderline racist returns to the days of Mantan Moreland. That last analogy is rather appropriate – Tucker’s Carter isn’t a clever or confident police officer. He’s a prop, sent into each and every scene as a low brow Greek chorus waiting to make with the urban smart-ass spiel. Instead of bugging his eyes and mangling the language like those outrageous and despicable portrayals of minorities past, he’s a post-modern pawn screaming his shrill one-liners about Michael Jackson and booty with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He’s not an actor – he’s the Corbin-screeching character from The Fifth Element refitted with some styling clothes and a hip-hop swagger. And the audience just eats it up.
If there is any rationale for his outsized payday, it’s the fact that Tucker knows his demo. He’s not playing to suburbia, or the critics who seem to find nothing but fault in his donkey bray bravado. No, he’s directly connected to the hardworking, hope-driven people who, after paying their carefully controlled disposable income, merely want to sit back and have a good time. When he channels James Brown via the King of Pop during an opening setpiece underscored by Prince’s “Do Me Baby”, it’s not meant to have narrative or aesthetic significance. It’s a stand-up shout out to the people paying to see him. Similarly, he gets another onscreen song and dance when he tries to save a suspected informant by crooning Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You”. Tucker knows these crowdpleasing vanity fairs leave the fanbase reeling. This means that Rush Hour 3 as a thriller or other cinematic genre has to do very little to get by.
For those interested in the backdrop to all this buffoonery, Tucker and Chan reteam when an Asian ambassador to the World Criminal Court (???) is gunned down by an assassin. Turns out this hitman is working for the Triad, whose goal is to protect the identity of someone or something called the ‘Shao Shin’. All leads point toward France, and so our slightly ditzy duo is off to Paris to procure the mysterious item. There, they meet a sadistic police chief (a weird cameo from Roman Polanski), an American-hating cabby, and the standard array of misplaced Hong Kong killers. After a few dust-ups and a completely gratuitous car chase, our heroes end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they must take on gun totting hoods, rescue the kidnapped daughter of the now hospitalized diplomat, and find an efficient way of tying all the loose ends together from their sloppy, shoestring plot.
Now, some will sneer and say that us ‘haters’ shouldn’t be so dismissive. After all, this is just some mindless fun fostered by a couple of likable screen gems. That being said, success breeds imitation, and if the studios ever figure out how to create another martial arts/mismatched personality pariah like this (watch out, Jet Li), we could find ourselves back in 1986. Indeed, much of Rush Hour 3 feels like a throwback to the days when lazy scriptwriters cooked up half-assed premises so that otherwise talented men and women could walk away with an easy paycheck and a bit of bankability on their resume. While the post-millennial versions are really no better (the Ocean’s films, for one), this trending back to the days of Gordon Gecko only works when you have something novel (Live Free or Die Hard) or naughty (Superbad) to say.
Besides, the inherent value in this long delayed tre-quel could be summed up by the proverbial statement, ‘absence (in this case, from the Cineplex) makes the heart grow fonder’. Since Tucker chooses to stay outside the cultural fray until one of these immaculate paydays come along, he gets the benefit of perspective and popularity. Had he been making movie after movie, honing his craft and redefining his skills, his fans would be angry with such a treading water workout. But since they’ve had to wait nearly a decade to see their favorite funnyman act the fool, they’re willing to leave the lack of context at the turnstile. It’s the same, more or less, with Chan. After the mediocre combo of Shanghai Knights and The Medallion, he went back to Asia and continued his A-list career. Rush Hour 3 his first Hollywood film since the incredibly lax Around the World in 80 Days remake from 2004.
Even more disconcerting, the man has gotten OLD. Gone are the days when the genial Asian action hero looked like a bewildered little boy. The last decade seems to have dragged the majority of vitality out of his persona, replacing it with a quiet resolve that, if exploited properly, could lead to a late in life resurrection as a character actor. Yet people want to see him stunt it up, and time has apparently mandated the need for the heretofore verboten double. It’s obvious during the opening act car chase through LA (especially when “Chan” is crossing a busy freeway), and as part of the last act fight at the top of the Eiffel Tower. There is no begrudging the 53 year old a little help – he’s been a more than impressive daredevil for far too long. But it doesn’t bode well that Chan is in the last phase of his signature stage. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
So, in what appears to be a case of either studio shrewdness or luck-induced synchronicity, New Line seems to be striking while the iron is as hot as its going to get. Besides, since they are fully aware of the film’s inherent silliness (it could be subtitled Abbot and Costello-san Meet the Chinese Mafia) and lack of sophistication, they are banking on the frequently potent paradigm known as “the lowest common denominator” to see them through. Success will not be based on the wit – after all, do audiences still find old white ladies talking jive and oily loser lotharios funny? – nor will it be founded on the hackneyed whodunit - see if you can’t guess the secret bad guy before the initial credits are complete. No, Rush Hour 3 will earn its scratch on the carefully controlled commerciality of Chris Tucker. Just don’t be surprised when, eight years and $30 million dollars from now, he comes crawling out of the woodwork for another anemic encore. It’s apparently all he, and this franchise, seem good at.