Buddy cop movies live and die completely on the chemistry between the two leads. If it’s not there, neither is the audience. The “Lethal Weapon” movies have it, while “The Heat” simply does not. Take the two leading men out of “Rush Hour”, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, and it completely falls apart. Keep them in, and you’ve got a thoroughly enjoyable action-comedy!
The Evel Knievel of martial arts films, better known as Jackie Chan, plays one half of the film’s buddy cop duo as Hong Kong Detective Inspector Lee, who finds himself paired with an American cop who is his polar opposite, Detective James Carter, played by comedian Chris Tucker. Everything that works about the film stems from the cultural clash between the fish-out-of-water Hong Kong cop and the motor-mouthed African-American LAPD detective finally getting a shot at his dream of working in the FBI, albeit slightly below the mailroom, given his first assignment.
Tzi Ma portrays the Hong Kong diplomat Han, while Julia Hsu plays his daughter and Lee’s martial arts student Soo Yun. Elizabeth Pena banters a bit more comfortably against Chris Tucker as his comrade on the LAPD Tania Johnson, while Tom Wilkinson and Ken Leung handle the villainous duties of the film as the treacherous Thomas Griffin aka Juntao and his right-hand man Sang, aided by a cadre of henchmen made up of various long-time associates of Jackie Chan himself!
As the British rule of Hong Kong comes to its end, Detective Inspector Lee manages to recover a shipment of stolen Chinese artefacts from the clutches of the mysterious Asian crime boss Juntao – although he is unsuccessful in his bid to apprehend Juntao’s right-hand man Sang. A few weeks later, Lee’s close friend, Chinese Consul Han begins his diplomatic duties in Los Angeles, only for his daughter and Lee’s martial arts student Soo Yun to be kidnapped by Sang.
Han summons Lee from Hong Kong to assist the FBI with the case, but the Fed’s fear that Lee’s involvement will tarnish the Bureau’s reputation should anything happen to him. They also don’t want the LAPD getting involved, so they summon the most abrasive cop in Los Angeles, Detective James Carter, to keep Lee out of the way until the case is resolved. The babysitting gig naturally doesn’t sit well with either of them, and Carter resolves to solve the case on his own while Lee’s acclimates himself to the foreign land of Los Angeles.
There’s a greater emphasis on comedy in “Rush Hour” than on the daredevil stunt work that had made Jackie Chan an under-the-radar phenomenon in the English-speaking world in the 90’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s a letdown at all. Studios had imported, trimmed, and dubbed films like “Amour of God II” and “Police Story IV” to be released stateside, but it wasn’t until Jackie’s breakthrough with “Rumble in the Bronx” that Hollywood producers thought he could carry a successful English-language film. With “Rush Hour”, pairing Jackie with a rising comedian like Chris Tucker would prove to be the winning formula to finally bring Jackie into the mainstream of the English-speaking world (Jet Li’s Hollywood debut in “Lethal Weapon 4” the same year would further open the floodgates for the influx of Asian stars into the West).
Lee and Carter are two men who couldn’t be more different – Lee’s mastery of martial arts and more conservative social persona are totally alien to Carter, and he spends much of the film on a crash course in American culture, often learning such vital information as whose radio he’s allowed to touch only after he’s made some blunder to try Carter’s patience. Lee’s unfamiliarity with American culture actually leads to one of the film’s best scenes, where he finds himself under assault from the patrons of a local bar after taking Carter’s advice to “do what I do” a little too literally and dropping a rather delicate racial epithet.
Millions of English-speakers were discovering Jackie Chan for the first time with “Rush Hour”, and this moment would effectively introduce them to his trademark blend of action and comedy. Place another action star in the same situation, and he’d tear his enemies limb from limb. But Jackie is the underdog and the fish-out-of-water simultaneously, insisting as he mops the floor with his attackers that he wants no trouble and leaving the scene totally befuddled about what brought their attack on. In 1998, to see that in Hollywood action comedies was a rarity, and Jackie Chan was just the man to kick such a concept off.
Carter is largely on the sidelines when it comes to combat, but the film does manage to convincingly work him into one of the action scenes when he and Lee are forced to fight a slew of Juntao’s henchman while preventing them from getting hold of a nearby handgun. Carter snags one of the best lines in the film after recovering from a sudden punt to the face to ask “Which one of y’all kicked me?” The kicker in question is none other than Jackie Chan’s long time associate and former bodyguard Ken Lo, best known for pitting his amazing kicking skills against Jackie in one of the most incredible fight scenes in history at the end of “Drunken Master II”. While his involvement in “Rush Hour” unfortunately doesn’t rise to a similar level of greatness, the sequence is at least a solid action scene that also manages to be genuinely funny (rarely has an attempt at saving face been so blatant and laughable as when Carter declares his and Lee’s victory at the end of the scene while blood pours from his nose and lip!).
Jackie’s creativity with action choreography is also front and center in the finale, which sees him battling off a group of Juntao’s henchman while simultaneously trying to prevent a set of priceless Chinese artefacts from being destroyed, and the sequence culminates in his biggest stunt of the film – a ten-story drop while Carter devises a last ditch effort to save him, just one of the many acts of cinematic death-defiance that make up Jackie Chan’s career.
“Rush Hour” works entirely because of the great chemistry between Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. It’s decidedly more of a comedy with action than the other way around, but it’s nevertheless one of Jackie’s more enjoyable Hollywood outings. Jackie more or less remade “Rush Hour” in Wild West form with “Shanghai Noon” two years later, transplanting Owen Wilson for Chris Tucker, and the gimmick would still prove to be just as funny!
- One fight scene in the film sees Jackie trying to stop his opponents from destroying Chinese artefacts. An inverted version of this scene takes place in “Shanghai Knights”, with the bad guys trying to protect the artefacts and Jackie using that to his advantage.
- Will Smith, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence were all considered for the role of Carter before Chris Tucker was cast.
- Between the release of “Rush Hour” in 1998 and “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012, Chris Tucker only appeared in two movies – both of them the “Rush Hour” sequels!
Film rating: 7.5/10