The Rush Hour Movies Never Did Right by Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker remain one of the great buddy cop duos from the Rush Hour movies, but those films did the martial arts and comedic prowess of Jackie Chan dirty.

Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour
Photo: Getty Images

48 Hrs. Lethal Weapon. Hot Fuzz. The best buddy cop comedies adhere to a simple formula. One guy is straight-laced, by the book, and really good at his job. The other is a loose cannon, a wild card who pushes the boundaries and gets most of the attention.

Rush Hour is no exception, pairing serious Hong Kong inspector Lee with a motormouth LAPD detective named Carter. Chris Tucker fits the bill for the latter role, coming off of big performances in Friday and The Fifth Element. But for the serious partner, they cast Jackie Chan, perhaps the greatest physical comedian since Buster Keaton. And they completely wasted him.

Misunderstanding Jackie Chan

“Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?!” That line, delivered at the loudest possible volume by the loudest possible actor, became the defining moment of Rush Hour. That simultaneously condescending yet clownish crack from Tucker’s Carter featured heavily in the movie’s trailers. The line permeated the culture. It even probably helped Rush Hour earn $244.4 million in late ‘90s money.

Sadly, it also captures director Brett Ratner‘s approach to the material. Carter shouts at his coworkers and hassles suspects, inviting the audience to laugh at his buffoonish attempts at cool. And to be clear, Tucker nails his role, staying just on the right side of annoying to accentuate jokes at Carter’s expense while amusing the audience.

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Ironically, Jackie Chan also made his career also inviting jokes at his characters’ expense. A devotee of silent movie star Buster Keaton, Chan understands that the power of a stunt lies in its stakes. In Chinese movies such as Drunken Master or Police Story, Chan doesn’t just pull off cool stunts, but he also shows the viewers how scared or nervous they make him.

Take a sequence from 1996’s First Strike, in which a misunderstanding results in a gang of toughs assaulting Chan’s character (helpfully named “Jackie” in the English dub). Desperate to avoid a conflict or, at least, refrain from hurting his assailants, Jackie merely defends himself from the onslaught. Between intervals of punches and kicks by the attackers, Jackie holds up his hands in desperation, begging them to stop. When he dives over and under chairs tossed at him or swings a table at the attackers, Jackie acts in defense.

The sequence climaxes with Jackie fighting off his opponents with only a ladder. It’s an amazing moment, with Chan opening and closing the ladder to push people away, rolling it over his back, and diving between it. The sequence features very few cuts, letting us see how Chan really does the insane things his characters pull off.

Yet as awesome as it is, the ladder sequence isn’t about how Jackie is unstoppable. Rather he stops to wince in pain when his fingers get caught in the ladder. After fending everyone off, he strikes an awesome pose that is immediately broken when he needs to wiggle his hurting fingers. And then he plops down on the ladder, refusing to do more.

By showing the viewer how scared and hurt he gets, Chan raises the stakes of the stunts. It brings the audience in on the making of the stunt, wowing us with the cool moves that Chan can pull off while also letting us laugh at the ridiculous mistakes he makes along the way.

But when Carter yells at Lee about understanding his words, Chan just has to stand there with a dumb smile, making him the dull straight man to Tucker’s gag. It’s virtually the dynamic of all three Rush Hour movies.

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Missing the Action

Shortly after the “do you understand” scene, Carter and Lee have their first true conflict, which gives Chan the chance to do his thing. Carter ditches Lee in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to talk with his informant (played by a pre-Deadwood John Hawkes). When Carter turns around, he sees that Lee has gone, escaping on the top of a tour bus. After Carter catches up with the bus, Chan performs a series of stunts to get away, first swinging from an overhead sign, then diving through an RV skylight, and finally pulling the gun from Tucker’s hands.

The moves look cool, and Chan tries to do his usual schtick within the parameters of American studio expectations. When he lands inside the RV, Chan gives an embarrassed apology to the confused Americans watching him. He dangles his legs a bit when hanging from the sign, showing that he’s scared and going for a laugh. But director Brett Ratner shoots it all with the passion of a TV show. Ratner mutes the power of Chan’s drop from the sign overhead by keeping his feet off-screen when he lands. The camera lags behind Chan as he slides through the RV, failing to let us see how he makes his movements.

However, Ratner does take time to clarify one joke during the sequence. Atop the tour bus with Lee is a group of Asian tourists, each with the exact same Hollywood tourist hat and each with a camera in their hands. When Carter catches up and pulls a gun on Lee, Ratner includes an insert shot to show the Asian tourists all pulling out their cameras and snapping pictures.

Tucker saves the moment as Carter makes ridiculous and over-the-top poses, but Chan just has to stand behind him and look irritated.

That scene shows the primary problem with Rush Hour. Ratner has terrible instincts, which Tucker’s loud, motormouth persona can overcome. However, Ratner’s too interested in out-of-date and bland racist jokes (even by ‘90s standards) about Asian tourists to take advantage of Chan’s genius. He similarly requires of Chan the bare minimum of his physical talents. The action sequences in the first Rush Hour particularly undervalue Chan’s athleticism and comedic timing.

Rush Hour helped raise Chan’s profile in the U.S., even more than Rumble in the Bronx and First Strike, both of which had theatrical releases in the States. But anyone who wants a comedy that actually takes advantage of Chan’s skills, both as an action hero and as a comedian, should check out Drunken Master, Twin Dragons, or Mr. Nice Guy, all also available on Tubi.

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Rush Hour is now streaming on Tubi.