by D.W. Lundberg

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Brett Ratner is a chameleon. This might explain why the self-promoting, self-aggrandizing director - whose films have amassed a collective $1 billion plus worldwide - has been able to slip into so many franchises without ruffling the feathers of fans. He did it in 2002, with Red Dragon, part three of Dino De Laurentiis' Hannibal Lecter series starring Anthony Hopkins. Then in 2006, he took over the ­X-Men franchise with The Last Stand, the most successful entry in Fox's genre-defining ensemble superhero saga.

(On the non-franchise front, you could view his 2000 holiday hit The Family Man as an unofficial remake of Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, or November's Tower Heist as an attempt to copy the con-artists-as-heroes cool of Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. The list goes on.)

Whether this qualifies him as an A-list copycat or a B-grade Hollywood hack is up for debate. The fact is, Ratner copies the style of his predecessors so well, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that they were made by a different director, unless you were acutely aware of the behind-the-scenes dramas that plagued their productions.

Before all that, Ratner directed Rush Hour (1998), the blockbuster action-comedy that brought him international fame (and likely kick-started his reputation as an ace imitator). Rush Hour apes a couple of genres – the Buddy Cop Comedy, which we've previously covered, and the Hong Kong Jackie Chan Stunt Spectacular. Not surprisingly, it's a reasonably satisfactory copy of both.

Screenwriter Ross LaManna initially envisioned Rush Hour as a hard-edged variation on the Buddy Comedy - more 48HRS. than Lethal Weapon. Then Jackie Chan joined the project (looking to score a breakout hit with American audiences), and the script was re- tailored to suit his comic sensibilities. Chris Tucker signed up next, hot off the success of Money Talks (also directed by Ratner), and the tone was set for the movie. It's the Asian-American twist on an age-old formula: Chan, the strong and silent type, versus Tucker, loudmouthed cock of the walk. Together, they rescue a kidnapped girl, chase each other all over Los Angeles, bring a mysterious crime lord to justice, sing a chorus of Edwin Starr's "War," and bond over Chinese take-out - not in that order. It's competent yet predictable fluff, your tolerance for which - like many a "Bromantic Comedy" – depends entirely on the chemistry between its two stars.

For my money, Chris Tucker is a bit of mixed bag: he's loud, a little too eager to please, with a voice pitched so high that it rings in your ears (he's like the second coming of Eddie Murphy, only screechier and more bug-eyed). He's got a boundless energy that's unique to the pantheon, though, and partnered with the legendary Jackie Chan, Tucker's over-the-top-ness sort of balances out; he does enough talking for the both of them.

Then again, you don't really go to a Jackie Chan movie for the dialogue. You go for the sheer level of superhuman skill on display, to watch as he bends and twists the laws of physics (and physicality) for the sake of entertainment. Rush Hour may be an Americanized version of Jackie's Hong Kong extravaganzas, but it worked well enough as a full-on introduction to his patented mix of stuntwork and comedy (before this, he'd been little more than a cult figure outside his native China). Critics, for the large part, hated it, but audiences lapped it up; the movie grossed an impressive $141 million in U.S. theaters alone, and another $103 million in foreign markets.

Which brings us back to Brett "The Rat" Ratner - master of motion picture mimicry. It's easy enough to make a standard-issue Buddy Comedy; you just take the same old ingredients, add a couple of charismatic lead actors into the mix, then sit back and wait for the magic to happen. Anyone can do that. Trying to copy the awe-inducing thrill of a Chinese chopsocky flick, however - that's hard. No doubt Ratner gorged on a steady diet of Jackie Chan movies prior to filming Rush Hour (maybe even before he directed his first music video). And it seems he learned the most important lesson from the best of them, which is simply to set your camera back, let Jackie do his thing, and make sure you get every bit of it on screen.

Ratner copies yet another important element from his Asian counterparts: the end credit outtake and gag reel. Usually, this is reserved for stunts gone wrong - broken bones, missed marks, perilous slips and falls. Here, we mostly get outtakes of Chan and Tucker flubbing their lines. Oh, well. Nobody's perfect.


The Original: Rush Hour (Brett Ratner, 1998)

Cast: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Elizabeth Peña, Tom Wilkinson, Philip Baker Hall, Tzi Ma, Ken Leung, Chris Penn

Plot: A Hong Kong police inspector and a brash Los Angeles detective work together to rescue a Chinese diplomat's daughter from gangsters.

How It Set The Tone: Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan makes his first successful bid to cross over to mainstream Hollywood cinema, with a vehicle that's finally able to mimic the thrills and excitement of his Cantonese-language action-comedy spectaculars. Credit director Brett Ratner, who learned from his Asian counterparts that it's best to step back and just let Jackie do his thing, to capture his fancy fist- and foot-work in all its widescreen glory. The movie itself is your umpteenth variation on the Buddy Cop Comedy formula, pairing Chan with (then) up-and-coming comedian Chris Tucker, and their chemistry is unique to the canon: Chan is so stoic and silent for much of the picture, and Tucker so vocal and over-the-top, that they balance each other out.

Room For Improvement: Tucker is a bit of an acquired taste, I'm afraid; his pitched-to-11 brand of "comedy" will either strike you as incredibly hilarious or downright unbearable, depending on your mood. That goes double for the plot, which is so by-the-numbers predictable you wait with bated breath for the next action stunt piece to come along, just to liven things up. Then again, that's the same with just about every Jackie Chan movie ever made.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Rush Hour 2 (Brett Ratner, 2001)

Returning Cast: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker

New Cast: John Lone, Ziyi Zhang, Roselyn Sanchez, Alan King, Harris Yulin

Plot: A Hong Kong police inspector and a Los Angeles detective find themselves embroiled in a money counterfeiting ring.

How It Compares: It's more cross-cultural hi-jinks for Police Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) and Detective Carter (Chris Tucker), with a plot that manages to copy the original movie almost beat for beat. Introductory action stunt piece set in exotic Hong Kong? Check. Obligatory racist "jokes" about Chinese/American stereotypes? Check. Opposing U.S. agency types who stand in our heroes' way, and even get them kicked off the case? Check. Extended fight sequence with Carter and Lee ambushed by half a dozen bad guys - only this time, dressed in robes? Check. I complain, yet actually I prefer the sequel; the budget's obviously bigger (Tucker gleaned a cool $20 million paycheck for this one, compared to Chan's $15 million), the stunts are better, and the script, despite its repetitiveness, plays fast and loose with genre conventions. Eye roll alert: Don Cheadle gets a wish-fulfillment cameo as an informant who fights Chan to a draw (uh huh), and it's a cheat pitting loudmouthed Tucker against loose-limbed Ziyi Zhang during the finale.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Rush Hour 3 (Brett Ratner, 2007)

Returning Cast: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Tzi Ma, Philip Baker Hall

New Cast: Max Von Sydow, Hiroyuki Sanada, Noémie Lenoir, Roman Polanski, Yvan Attal

Plot: Inspector Lee and Detective Carter try to protect a Chinese Ambassador and his daughter from Triad assassins.

How It Compares: To be honest, I couldn't remember much of this one before I started writing about it. I remembered I didn't mind it, especially after the critical drubbing it received while playing in theaters, but other than a few flashes (a fight atop the Eiffel Tower, say, or Chris Tucker grooving to Prince's "Do Me, Baby" while directing LA traffic), the movie hadn't left much of an impression. Watching it again, it's easy to see why: It's a Teflon movie, harmless and generic, in which everyone shows up and does their thing, collects their paycheck, and maybe takes in some sight-seeing between takes. Tucker, more than ever, seems to be channeling his inner Eddie Murphy, while Jackie Chan, clearly showing his age, resorts to stunt doubles and CGI (sacrilege!). Guest stars include director Roman Polanski as a French police commissioner with an affinity for body cavity searches, and Yvan Attal as a Parisian cab driver obsessed with American pop culture. As if all the Asian/American stereotyping in the first two movies just wasn't enough.

Grade: C

More To Come?: Brett Ratner has been promising a fourth Rush Hour for some time now (possibly sending Tucker and Chan to Russia). Budgetary issues, though, have so far kept that from happening.


Part 4 of my "Buddy Cop" retrospective. For Parts 1, 2, and 3 click here, here and here. For all non- Buddy Franchise Face-Offs, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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