Watchers who warned that a six-year gap between installments would cost the “Rush Hour” franchise some energy — especially from Jackie Chan, now in his early 50s — aren’t entirely off the mark. But the latest picture to feature one of the movies’ oddest crime-fighting tandems nevertheless stays true to the franchise formula of East-West fusion action, broad cultural comedy and international intrigue, this time largely in Paris. August rollout is like money in the bank for New Line, which will milk this likely final installment for maximum revenues down the ancillary stream.
Though late summer timing is just right for the franchise, “Rush Hour 3” opens just a week after “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and while auds may take some relief in the bouncy comic rapport between Chan and Chris Tucker, they’re bound to find the action mild if not downright tame by comparison. The action bar has been raised to exceptional heights — higher than even the great Chan can leap across.
It may take younger viewers awhile to figure out the background plot in the new pic, since screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (who also wrote the superior “Rush Hour 2”) revives characters from the first “Rush Hour”: Chinese Ambassador Han (Tzi Ma) and his now-20-year-old daughter Soo Yung (now played by Zhang Jingchu, from “Peacock” and “Seven Swords”). Han is shot by an assassin in Los Angeles just as he’s ready to blow the cover on a secret triad conspiracy before the World Criminal Court.
Carter (Tucker) has been demoted by the LAPD to mere traffic cop, a job he executeswith his usual soul-hipster musical-comedy flair. As bodyguard to Han, Lee chases the assassin across downtown Los Angeles freeway ramps and bridges (where Chan has a few minutes for impressive stunt work that doesn’t involve hand-to-hand or foot-to-foot combat), only to discover the culprit is Kenji (the busy Hiroyuki Sanada), his long-lost companion and “brother” from their childhood orphanage. Emotionally unable to shoot Kenji, Lee lets him get away.
This sets up a potentially more interesting personal conflict for Lee than in “Rush Hour 2,” in which his character had to confront his father’s ex-partner and murderer. It’s not to be, however: The Lee-Kenji battle never goes beyond the emotional level of a stare-off.
Carter and Lee hunt down an envelope with key info on the triad conspiracy. Until recently, the evidence had been under Soo Yung’s care at her kung fu studio in Chinatown (where the guys have a hilarious run-in with a giant dude played wordlessly by Sun Ming Ming, who makes Yao Ming look like a runt). Triad henchmen now have the envelope, but with a little bit of (witty) torture, the duo determine the truth lies with Genevieve (the exotic Noemie Lenoir), the star attraction at an underground Paris nitery.
The old black-Asian cultural parries between Lee and Carter have been retired; now in Paris, it’s Americans vs. the French –hence characters like stuck-up taxi driver George (Yves Attal), who’s so Americanized he dons a Lakers cap and thinks he’s an international spy. Shift is a bit of a stretch, but the Gallic friction is made more amusing by Roman Polanski (making a terrific uncredited cameo as Paris’ sadistic police chief) and the wonderful Julie Depardieu as George’s highly skeptical wife.
Also involved in all this is World Criminal Court topper Reynard (Max Von Sydow), who may or may not be the upholder of global justice his title suggests. By the time Kenji phones Lee for a final confab at the Eiffel Tower, two things will be obvious to attentive viewers: Pic is following the always-compact “Rush Hour” formula, down to wrapping things up in less than 90 minutes’ playing time; and Chan has far fewer stunt set pieces here than in any previous film in which he’s starred.
Jumps, thrusts and falls across and down the Eiffel are quite impressive, despite a few visible CGI effects, and the capper stunt involving a giant French flag is just goofy enough. Still, the pic ends rather flatly; the previous adrenaline rush just isn’t there anymore.
As if to compensate for an understandable diminution of physical prowess and martial artistry, Chan moves more aggressively into purely comic territory, offering a preview of his second career as a comedy star. By contrast, Tucker’s shtick is starting to feel long in the tooth, and the thesp feels increasingly like a second fiddle. Sanada, always a strong presence, has an underwritten role that cheats the pic of several juicy action and psychodrama possibilities. Lenoir and Attal uphold their Gallic pride, while Von Sydow plays the role Hollywood has regularly tagged to this supremely great actor: The Elegant European.
Helmer Ratner knows the “Rush Hour” routine by heart, and production values, even with several new contributors to the franchise (including solid lenser J. Michael Muro), maintain the franchise’s sharp, shiny look.