The Theory of Chaos

Friday, February 08, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Rush Hour 3

Originally published 8/20/07
Full review behind the jump

Rush Hour 3

: Brett Ratner
: Jeff Nathanson, based on characters created by Ross LaManna
: Arthur M. Sarkissian, Roger Birnbaum, Andrew Z. Davis, Jonathan Glickman, Jay Stern
: Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Max Von Sydow, Hiroyuki Sanada, Yvan Attal, Youki Kudoh, Noémie Lenoir, Jingchu Zhang

Back when I was but a pup, a 21-year-old college senior writing film reviews for my school paper, the Bradley Scout, I started my review of the first
Rush Hour picture by asking how it was possible for the plainly incompetent James Carter (Chris Tucker) to reach the rank of police detective at all, much less at such a young age, not to mention be able to afford to drive an impeccably-detailed Porsche Spider on a cop’s salary. But I recognized that the movie was not actually about police work, or competence, or really anything but a dressed-up series of contrived incidents based around such strange bedfellows as Tucker’s watered-down Eddie Murphy-in-48 Hours shtick and Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan’s human-pinball physical inventiveness.

I’ve come a long way as a movie critic since then, but
Rush Hour 3 represents none too much progress for its franchise. Carter is still shallow, hyperactive, cowardly, and an absolute failure as a police officer – when the movie opens he’s been busted down to traffic cop, although why he’s still considered employable at all is beyond me. And the movie, as always, is a ramshackle progression of comic violence scenes hindered by a plot hole so massive it’s a wonder it doesn’t suck the whole movie into its maw.

The plot concerns the hunt for an assassin who has taken a near-fatal shot at Chinese Ambassador Han (Tzi Ma), the old friend of Police Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) whose daughter was kidnapped in the first Hour. It was a sign of this whole franchise’s disposability that I had to reach deep into my memory to recall that was indeed what the fuss was about.

Han was about to reveal a centuries-old secret – the identity of the leadership of the international criminal organization The Triads. If you see this movie (and I’m taking pains to preserve one of its “surprises”) you’ll understand how absurd is the implication that Han had access to this information, and at no point had it preserved anywhere permanent. In the age of cell phone cameras and the ominously-growing Google cache, the Triads’ fabled methods of concealment are so far from foolproof it’s laughable – their identities would be on the Internet in about three minutes.

But this is a movie that discourages thinking. It operates on the level of the 8-foot-tall kung-fu student (Sun Ming Ming) that Carter and Lee end up in brief and comically unsuccessful fisticuffs with. On seeing Carter’s bug-eyed, mosquito-voiced antics, the giant grins and exclaims “Funny black man!” Whatever test screenings the Rush Hour movies have gone through, I think the positive scorecards must have been covered, with no sense of irony, in comments like that.

I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan’s ever since that same stint as a college movie snob took me to see his first real break-through to American audiences, 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx. Even then he was a little off his physical peak, but his Buster Keaton-inspired comic timing, ingenious choreography, eager-beaver charm and sheer crazy stuntman guts granted him several more years at or near the top of his game. Now he is 53 and, given that he’s abused his body more than two Evel Knievels, that the man can still walk is impressive, but the effects of time on his speed and dexterity are now undeniable. In addition, the quick-cut, close-up heavy American filmmaking style has always done him a disservice, interrupting the almost melodic pacing of his stunt sequences, and time and time again they make the mistake of casting him as the disapproving straight man against the goofy likes of Tucker and Owen Wilson. This is squandering a rare and finite resource, my friends.

Rush Hour 3 doesn’t give Chan much to show off with until its climax, which involves a vigorous sword fight and a chance for him to clamber and leap around the superstructure of the Eiffel Tower. Carter has been studying up on his own kung-fu, which is gladdening, since before he could participate in fights it was a mystery why Lee even bothered to give such an obvious liability a chance to muck up his investigations.

It’s their enduring friendship, though, which provides what few sweet pleasures these movies have. By means which would take too long to explain, Carter at one point must protect a key witness (Noémie Lenoir) from hitmen by instigating a song and dance number with her; only to be joined by Lee (Chan has a thriving pop-music career in his native country). Suddenly it looks a lot more like a love song between the two men, which is more befitting this genre than many of its fans would care to admit. And at one point, as a disagreement has driven them apart, we see each having a lonely meal – Carter orders mu shu pork, and Lee suddenly craves fried chicken and sweet potato pie.

That means of poking at cultural stereotypes with a sort of impish guilelessness points the way towards what a more challenging kind of comedy the Rush Hour pictures could be, but they’re nearly always ready to settle for the easy gag lest you start thinking about what you’ve just spent money on. Director Brett Ratner has directed all three of these pictures, and as we know from filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg, having a trilogy is, for better or worse, one-stop shopping for people to study your filmmaking values. Ratner’s most consistent quality as a director has nothing to do with style, or voice, or even talent – he’s a breezy mediocrity who’s probably swell at parties and has yet to lose studio money in any egregious amount.

His trademark is that he never fails to hire top-tier technicians and designers (Lalo Schifrin has composed music for this series that is almost appallingly inventive considering what banalities it ends up accompanying on-screen), and then puts them to work without thinking too hard about what story they’re trying to tell, without breaking a sweat trying to unify them towards any creative idea. Rush Hour 3 is, then, another in an unbroken line of quintessential Brett Ratner pictures – all impeccably gift-wrapped empty boxes. I knew that when I was 21 – I still know it today.


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