The 90s on Netflix: Rush Hour (1998)
Mark Harrison | On 07, Jan 2022
Director: Brett Ratner
Cast: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Ken Leung, Tom Wilkinson, Tzi Ma
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Did you know that we have Rush Hour to thank for “Fresh” and “Rotten” movie ratings? Jackie Chan fan Senh Duong aggregated American reviews of the star’s Hong Kong action films and ahead of this release, Chan’s first major Hollywood movie, he created the website Rotten Tomatoes, which went live in 1998. More than 20 years later, Chan’s first team-up with co-star Chris Tucker and director Brett Ratner sits somewhere in the middle of his overall Tomatometer rankings, but ahead of many of his other live-action US outings.
In many ways, the fondness for Rush Hour is more about the personalities involved than what it does for the tried-and-tested buddy-cop movie formula of the 1990s. Chan plays Hong Kong detective Lee, who comes to America after the mysterious crime lord Juntao orders the kidnapping of the Chinese consul’s daughter Soo-Yung. Brushed off by the FBI, Lee is partnered with undercover LAPD detective James Carter (Tucker). He doesn’t play well with others but is all too happy to disobey the higher-ups and aid in a separate investigation to rescue Soo-Yung and identify Juntao.
It’s all fairly standard stuff for buddy comedies at the time – five years after 1993’s unloved Last Action Hero sent up mismatched cop partners, the formula was still popular. But even by these formulaic standards, Rush Hour is almost minimalist in its plot. It’s really a vehicle for Chan, who had well and truly broken out in the US with the American release of 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx.
While the trade presses churned out stories about Hollywood insurance companies refusing to cover the star, Chan is endlessly watchable even in a film that’s a more well-behaved than most of his Hong Kong fare. Whether dazzling in his exit from the top of a double-decker bus or doing a pitch-perfect slapstick routine of fighting off two opponents while trying to save a priceless vase, he’s always brilliant.
Meanwhile, Tucker came to the film after starring in Ratner’s breakthrough hit, 1996’s Money Talks, and took the role of Carter after Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and Wesley Snipes all passed. His filibustering detective is cut from the same cloth as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, but he makes it his own and, more importantly, has genuine comic chemistry with Chan.
The interludes where they practice disarming each other or sing along to Edwin Starr’s War are the funniest and most entertaining parts of the film, and make the bog-standard international crime intrigue look that much duller by comparison. Crucially, the two leads are on a roughly equal footing – neither is the sidekick, and Chan had turned down many American offers to play supporting roles with no lines before accepting Rush Hour.
Once this was a hit, it cemented Chan as a lead in his later American projects. Even Disney’s Around the World in 80 Days makes Steve Coogan’s Phileas Fogg the foil to Chan’s Passepartout, prefiguring BBC One’s more even-handed 2021 series.
Where Chan and Tucker would come back for two sequels, the first Rush Hour is largely populated with stock characters and subplots. There’s a decent showing by Ken Leung as primary henchman Sang, exasperated support from Philip Baker Hall and Elizabeth Peña, and we’d see the same type of characters played by different actors in different locations in Rush Hours 2 and 3. Heck, the dressing around the central duo is so disposable, the entire franchise is named after a throwaway line that doesn’t really relate to the plot.
One regard in which Chan’s Hong Kong films intersect with the Hollywood studio comedies of the same era is their closing blooper reels. The outtakes aren’t as jaw-dropping or wince-inducing as those of Police Story or Project A, where you see people really getting hurt, but there’s fun in flubbed lines and missed marks too.
But Rush Hour is unabashedly a vehicle for its central duo and is strictly nothing more than that. In casting Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, it punches well above its weight, and it doesn’t have a whole lot of personality outside of their unlikely match. Accordingly, the sequels weren’t as warmly received when they came along in 2001 and 2007, and nor was the short-lived TV series reboot from Scrubs and Ted Lasso creator Bill Lawrence in 2016.
Although studios and filmmakers have severed ties with Ratner following sexual misconduct allegations, both Chan and Tucker remain enthusiastic about the possibility of making a fourth film (presumably with a new director) “before we get old”. Time will tell on that one but, in the parlance of the website it inspired, there’s enough that’s fresh and funny in the original to gloss over the rotten buddy-cop routine.
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