Chris Tucker is a phenomenon. After appearing in less than a dozen movies, he leveraged a racial stereotype many hoped buried and gone into one of the highest salaries in Hollywood.
For “Rush Hour 3” he reportedly received $25 million plus a slice of the box office. His motor-mouth buffoonery, applauded by cross-culture audiences, paved the wayfor a ride on Air Force One with Clinton and the opportunity to hang with foreign dignitaries. He even hosted the NAACP Awards show. As his “Rush Hour” character LAPD Detective James Carter would exclaim, “Damn!”
In contrast, Jackie Chan who plays Carter’s sidekick, Chinese Chief Inspector Lee, took the long route to Hollywood, receiving various credits in over 100 movies, mostly made in Hong Kong. For his insistence on doing his own stunt work, he has been rewarded with serious injuries, including countless broken bones. His special mix of martial arts and acrobatics sometimes blend into his acting so smoothly that audiences miss it, one of the reasons he took a while to catch on in the US.
The slapstick “Rush Hour” series gave Chan an opportunity to polish his dramatic chops, while introducing larger American audiences to his skills. Cast as a somewhat reserved Chinese inspector from Hong Kong who ends up partnered with an over-the-top African-American cop, his role often consisted of mute reactions—amusement, confusion, or condescension to Tucker’s antics.
Playing on the magnified differences of race and culture, it was usually Tucker’s lines, written or improvised, that pushed the envelope of propriety.
“Rush Hour 3” brings us a tone-downed Chris Tucker accompanied by a manicured production. His wide-eyed caricature remains very much present, but considerably tamed, and his improvisational contributions are reduced.
<p>In fact, it's Inspector Lee’s story that dominates the narrative, and Chan proves equal to the task.
The first episode in six years (Tucker has not made a movie since “Rush Hour 2”) finds Carter demoted from detective to traffic cop.
Working a busy intersection and listening to his iPod, his hand movements become hijacked by a soulful tune. Hands and feet enslaved to the music, he turns the intersection into a game of bumper cars. Tucker’s solo openingpromises more of the tired franchise formula, but fortunately that’s not the case.
Regaining his detective badge, Carter rejoins with Lee as they fly to Paris to resume their battle against a wing of the Triads, the infamous Chinese crime syndicate. There they meet an America-despising cabbie name George (Yvan Attal), who wants to be a secret agent. While Attal’s screen time is limited, he makes the most of it, taking some of the comedic load off Tucker.
Early on, Lee discovers the identity of a lieutenant in the Triads—a painful revelation. The inspector grew up in an orphanage with Kenji, who he regards as a brother. Chan, in his most accomplished acting yet, convincingly imparts the emotional struggles of his character, who's conflicted, even when locked in mortal combat against this man with whom he has had a lifetime bond.
Tucker, on the other hand, also displays new breadth and dimension, but not so dramatically as Chan. For him, his improvement reveals itself not so much in what he does, but in what he doesn’t do.
The irony here, as it can only be in Hollywood, is that a better, but certainly not great product may actually hurt at the box office. Without Tucker’s excessive mugging and racial gags, it’s a different offering.
The fan base has expressed its appreciation for the previous episodes at the box-office, the humor sanctioned by its unchallenged public display. Now it’s kind of a “'tweener,” on its way from what it was to something else.
The chemistry between Tucker and Chan, both as characters and actors, is visibly improved. They seem to have found a rhythm with each other — an understanding and acceptance of the space and support each needs to have.
The question is, “Will it sell?”
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by all of Examiner's film critics.