Jackie Chan is poised to score his biggest American-produced hit with “Rush Hour,” a frankly formulaic but raucously entertaining action comedy that comes equipped with the additional marquee allure of up-and-comer Chris Tucker. Cast as an odd couple of cops who join forces to find a Chinese consul’s kidnapped daughter, the two leads should be laughing all the way to the bank when the grosses start rolling in. Foreign release likely will generate even more impressive coin, and homevid income will just sweeten the pot.
Pic represents a savvy career move for Chan, whose previous American-made vehicles — “The Big Brawl” (1980) and “The Protector” (1985) — were B.O. underachievers. This time out, the Asian superstar gets a chance to broaden his appeal beyond his loyal cult following simply by doing what he does best. The big difference is that he does a bit less of it here — and not just because he shares the screen with a co-star whose own fans must be accommodated. Much like Hong Kong expatriate John Woo, who toned down his trademark flamboyance while directing his debut American feature, “Hard Target,” Chan has restrained himself in the hope of attracting the uninitiated while keeping his longtime admirers.
To be sure, some Chan purists may be disappointed. In “Rush Hour,” the fight scenes are shorter and slightly less plentiful, and the death-defying stunts — which, as usual, Chan performs without using a double — are kept to a minimum. But even a restrained Jackie Chan is more exhilarating and engaging than just about any other action star in the business.
Tucker also brings it down a few notches, and comes across as much looser and funnier than he did in last year’s “Money Talks” — which, like current pic, was directed by Brett Ratner. Tucker’s manic, motormouth style of comedy is an effective counterbalance to Chan’s rapid-fire acrobatics, which owe as much to Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton as to Bruce Lee. Whether their characters are bickering or bonding, the two stars bring out the best in each other.
Early scenes introduce Chan as Detective Inspector Lee, a Hong Kong supercop who captures a notorious mobster’s cache of stolen artwork just before the 1997 transfer of the former British colony. Scene then shifts to L.A., where Tucker makes his predictably explosive entrance as Detective James Carter, a fast-talking, rule-breaking maverick who prefers to work without a partner.
Carter yearns to join the FBI, and thinks he’s gotten a big break when his disapproving chief (Philip Baker Hall) assigns him to the bureau for a major case. But the feds simply want Carter to “baby-sit” Lee, who has flown to L.A. to help his old friend the Chinese consul (Tzi Ma) recover his abducted 11-year-old daughter (Julia Hsu). The FBI agents in charge view Lee as little more than a nuisance, and expect Carter to keep the Hong Kong detective far out of harm’s way. But, not surprisingly, Lee and Carter are the ones who identify, and ultimately neutralize, the villains of the piece.
Working from a serviceable script by Jim Kouf and Ross Lamanna, Ratner gives his two leads ample opportunity to bounce humorously off each other as they slowly bond and develop mutual respect. And rather than ignore or disguise Chan’s occasional awkwardness with English, “Rush Hour” uses the language barrier as a running gag, often to hilarious effect, particularly in a show-stopping song-and-dance sequence in which Carter corrects Lee’s pronunciation during latter’s rendition of his favorite American song, “War.”
A peroxided Ken Leung provides some forebodingly silken menace as Sang, the chief kidnapper, who proves to be almost as lethal as the Hong Kong cop when it comes to martial-arts mayhem. Tom Wilkinson (“The Full Monty”) appears briefly in the early H.K. scenes as a British diplomat; his character plays a key role in later goings-on. Chan and vet stunt coordinator Terry Leonard (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) choreograph some full-throttle action sequences to keep the party lively. As always, Chan is sheer poetry in motion while gracefully running up walls, disarming opponents and falling from great heights. Tucker, too, is effective when he gets physical, though he mostly plays it for laughs when he’s on the wrong side of a well-aimed foot. Even co-star Elizabeth Pena, who’s stuck in the thankless role of Carter’s unwanted partner, gets to join in the rough stuff late in the film.
In a few scenes, the editing works against Chan by breaking up the flow of his frenzied physicality. Other-wise, tech credits are first-rate across the board.