Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Recent Watches: Rush Hour (1998)

In the mid-to-late nineties, Jackie Chan was at the peak of his popularity. Not world-wide. In his native China and Hong Kong, Chan has remained an evergreen superstar. Stateside though, Chan’s acrobatic, stunt-filled action flicks were mostly an underground phenomena throughout the eighties. In the nineties, Chan finally broke through to the mainstream, with dubbed version of “Supercop” and “Rumble in the Bronx” making him a pop culture fad. It was time for Jackie to make a big Hollywood movie. His theatrics were already well accepted, even among suburban white kids, but the eventual Hollywood project he ended up in was as safe as can be. “Rush Hour” was the stodgiest of material: A buddy cop movie about cops from different cultures clashing and learning to work together.

Lee is a Hong Kong supercop, hunting down Juntao, the country’s most notorious illegal smuggler. On the eve of Hong Kong falling back into Chinese hands, Lee’s partner is killed by the bad guy. The villain flies to America and kidnaps the daughter of the Chinese consul. Meanwhile, obnoxious L.A. cop Carter is tracking illegal explosive being imported into the city. After an especially bad fuck-up, Carter is assigned by the FBI to keep Lee out of the case. Naturally, the streetwise cop and the Hong Kong acrobat eventually form a partnership and poke their noses into the trouble that’s brewing.

The main selling point of “Rush Hour,” whether or not the studio realized it, was Jackie Chan doing awesome shit. Say what you will about the movie but it certainly delivers that. Early on, Chan leaps out between two giant shipping crates. He climbs onto a traffic light, leaping across moving vehicles. A fight in a bar makes great use of stools, pool cues, and lamp lights. A scuffle in the back of a restaurant involves lots of impressive flipping, diving, and kicking. Maybe the highlight is the final showdown in the museum, where Chan has to balance protecting priceless sculptures with beating the crap out of the baddies. It’s all pretty awesome. Meanwhile, Chan maintains his breezy comic persona, always delivering an outrageous stunt with a smile and a silly expression.

But “Rush Hour” isn’t a one-man show for Jackie Chan. That probably would have been really entertaining but this a buddy cop movie. Lee’s better half is Carter, played by Chris Tucker. That Tucker would become successful enough to co-headline a flick with a legit superstar like Jackie Chan shows that the late nineties were a… Strange time. Tucker’s schtick features a lot of shouting and shrieking, some of it spoke so quickly you can barely understand him. He frequently baits his co-stars by doing something sort of annoying and incredibly broad. Tucker is not the most appealing performer. However, “Rush Hour” at least uses him decently. His funniest moment is actually when he confronts a gangster that turns out to be his friendly cousin. Yeah, his attempts at being an action star may vary. He doesn’t carry the movie on his own and the film balances Tucker’s scream-y comedy with Chan’s great stunts.

How does “Rush Hour” operate as a buddy cop movie? Chan is a smart enough comedic performer to temper Tucker’s more irritating qualities. The two do not exactly have firecracker chemistry. Most of their early scenes together, where Carter treats Lee like an idiot foreigner and belittles him and his culture, are reductive, to say the least. When Tucker makes cracks about egg rolls, the Great Wall, and being unable to tell the difference between China and Japan, that’s horribly embarrassing. Some of their quieter scenes, where the two compare their fathers over dinner, dance on the sidewalk, or debate badge-flashing techniques, are genuinely amusing. Some of the culture clash humor will make you laugh but in a dumb, obvious way. As soon as Chan enters a bar full of tough black guys, you can predict the results.

It’s a good thing that Chan’s stunts are great and the comedy is mildly amusing because “Rush Hour” has a totally generic plot. The bad guys kidnapping somebody’s daughter is about as generic an action movie plot as you can imagine. There’s a reveal surrounding the movie’s main villain. It’s not hard to figure out, if you know how to play “Spot the sinister British guy!” Tucker’s love interest is played by an overqualified Elizabeth Pena. Her character is a bomb disposal expert, a skill which obviously comes in handy at the end. At least the film cast an intimidating actor, Ken Leung, as the villain’s main henchman, Sang. Despite setting the two up as enemies, the movie doesn’t have the good sense to give Jackie Chan a big showdown with the guy.

“Rush Hour” is as stock-parts a crowd pleaser as you could expect. with a pretty dumb script and workman-like execution. (Say what you will about Brett Ratner but the guy at least knows how to frame an action scene.) Chan brings his A-game though. The movie is over quickly enough that it leaves you with a big grin. It’s only a few minutes after watching it that you realize how really stupid “Rush Hour” is. Naturally, it would go on to become an enormous hit and spawn a franchise. The good part?: It made Jackie Chan an even star. The bad part?: It kept Chris Tucker relevant. [6/10]

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