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One surprisingly enjoyable movie and two lazy sequels
on 20 September 2017
NB: As is Amazon's wont, they've very unhelpfully bundled all the reviews for various editions and formats together. This review refers to Warner's US region-free Blu-ray release, although aside from a fourth disc with a single featurette the extras are the same as those included on the DVD editions.
When the trailer for Rush Hour first dropped it looked like it was going to be third time unlucky for Jackie Chan’s attempts to break in to the US market after The Big Brawl and The Protector had both misunderstood his appeal and barely made a ripple at the box-office: even Chan had low expectations. Worse, Chan was largely sidelined or reduced to a straight man in favour of Chris Tucker’s loud motormouthed inanity, so it was a surprise to see just how well the film itself turned out, with the odd couple/buddy cop formula providing a surprisingly good fit for his brand of often comic stuntwork while not resting the film entirely on his shoulders. If at the time Tucker was for many more of an irritant than a compliment to his style, compared to how horribly overindulged he would be in the sequels he kept enough in check to never derail the film with his very limited shtick, and the two do share genuine chemistry, whether bonding over an impromptu performance of Edwin Starr’s War (What Is It Good For?) on the street or playing my daddy’s bigger than your daddy. In retrospect it’s also surprising just how well made the film is: director Brett Ratner got incredibly lazy incredibly fast, but in 1998 he still had something to prove and helped craft a slick looking entertainment that didn’t need a huge budget or massive setpieces to keep the audience’s attention.
The story is simple enough: when the Chinese consul Tzi Ma’s young daughter is kidnapped in Los Angeles and he asks old friend and Hong Kong cop Jackie Chan for help, the FBI draft in the LAPD’s loudest and most unpopular cop to keep him out of their hair only for the two to naturally end up solving the case (which just as naturally involves both an old enemy of Chan and Ma’s from the last days of British rule in the colony) and saving the day. Chan’s English had improved dramatically since his 80s American films and he was still spy enough to clearly and deftly do most of the stunt work himself even if the insurers insisted on some green screen work and safety wires (now de rigueur on his Chinese movies), with Ratner reportedly leaving him just enough space to choreograph and supervise his own action scenes (something that very contentiously would not be the case on the second film). None of it compares to his earlier Hong Kong glories by a long shot, but it’s cannily tailored to the film’s budgetary limitations and to show off the kind of moves Asian audiences had come to expect as standard between the really big stunts (one reason why the Rush Hour films did notably poor business on his home turf).
There are no surprises apart from how enjoyable it is, but, Shanghai Noon aside, considering how bad almost all of Chan’s subsequent American films were as they misjudged his appeal and misused his talents, that’s more than enough for an entertaining 97 minutes.
The picture quality on Warners’ region-free Blu-ray is certainly an upgrade from DVD though not quite the revelation it should have been in high definition, possibly because of the amount of space taken up by subtitle tracks (28 of them) and spoken language tracks (9) and the extras ported over from the DVD release (director’s commentary, isolated score with commentary by Lalo Schifrin, 6 brief deleted scenes, puff piece featurettes, music videos and student short film by Ratner).
As promised in the final scene of the first film, Rush Hour 2 moves the action to Hong Kong and reverses the premise so that this time Chris Tucker is the fish out of water on Jackie Chan’s home turf, at least for the first third.
For the first ten minutes or so it works well if unexceptionally enough but with a botched and incredibly lazily shot and edited action scene that sees Jackie fighting gangsters on the bamboo scaffolding of a building it quickly becomes apparent that the film is already in trouble: director Brett Ratner is much more interested in cutting away to an exhausted Tucker running up the stairs than in anything Chan is doing. Aside from leading the star to complain throughout the press tour that Ratner reneged on his promise to give him enough time to shoot the action scenes properly because he thought too much action was boring, it also sets the tone for the rest of the film – Chan may still get top billing, but he spends far too much of the movie in the background (sometimes literally) as straight man to Tucker’s motormouthed rants, Ratner at times even keeping the camera fixed on Tucker’s close-ups with only the back of Chan’s head in frame and only giving him the occasional bemused reaction shot. Even when it comes time to take down Zhang Ziyi’s psychotic henchwoman, it’s Tucker rather than Chan who gets the big fight sequence. Chan manages to steal a few moments but it’s telling that most of his outtakes in the end credits are of him flubbing dialogue.
Tucker’s determination to out-Eddie Murphy Eddie Murphy is also given full rein, with a much less funny version of the redneck bar scene from 48 Hrs and a rehash of Bronson Pinchot’s camping it up scene from Beverly Hills Cop with an even camper Jeremy Piven. If Tucker is louder, everything is bigger and more expensive in the belief that that automatically makes it better, but even though there’s a decent Maguffin to the plot – a scheme to launder near-perfect counterfeit notes by triad leader John Lone, who coincidentally happens to be the man who killed Chan’s father (not to be confused with the first film’s villain, who killed Chan’s partner) – Ratner’s staging is erratic at best, falling prey to the Hal Needham philosophy of lazy filmmaking (as long as you’re having fun making it, no matter how bad a film is the audience will automatically have fun too) and either coasting or winging it too often. It’s as if Ratner were staking his claim to being America’s answer to Michael Winner, but where Winner took several years to go from making half-decent films to lazily throwing together bad ones with big stars looking for easy paydays in pleasant locations Ratner seems to have made the leap to mediocrity in next to no time.
One a second viewing it’s certainly not the terrible film disappointment made it seem first time round, and Chan had made much worse in Hong Kong and would make much, much worse in the US (yes, the Tuxedo, I do mean you), but it relies too much on the goodwill carried over from the first film rather than earning it anew.
Once again the extensive but superficial DVD special features are carried over to the Blu-ray – director’s commentary, deleted scenes with even more Tucker grandstanding (including a staggeringly bad alternate version of the truck scene where you can see both stars losing the will to live as the scene dies around them), more outtakes, a plethora of featurettes and three trailers. Again picture quality is a distinct improvement on the DVD without ever approaching reference quality for Blu-ray.
So, is there anything good to say about Rush Hour 3? Not much, but there’s less bad to say about it than Rush Hour 2, which is something to be grateful for at least. For starters, Brett Ratner has remembered that Jackie Chan’s in the movie too and gives him something to do this time instead of pretty much reducing him to reaction shots to Chris Tucker’s endless witless improvisation. Unfortunately not much of it is done very well, with rushed action scenes and - unforgivably - some pretty obvious CGi and stunt doubling which makes it pretty clear that after three films he still doesn’t get what the whole point of putting Jackie Chan in a movie is. Still, Chan has at least one good stunt with a flag before it develops into too much of a spinoff of one used in A View to a Kill (and on the same Eiffel Tower location).
There’s both less and more of the newly Supersized Tucker this time round: fewer of his unimaginatively improvised rants make the cut this time, but there’s a lot more of him in an auditioning for Big Mamma’s House 3 way. The comedy isn’t exactly well executed, varying from a bad version of Yu’s On First that suffers from lousy comic timing from both Tucker and the film’s editor, Tucker pulling a gun on Yvan Attal’s French cabbie because he - entirely reasonably - doesn’t want to drive Tucker (not because he’s black but because he’s a loud and obnoxious American) to an anal exam by Roman Polanski’s French police inspector with a Clouseau ‘tache. Just to show he’s not playing favorites this time, Ratner ensures that the action scenes are just as typically lazily staged as if to prove that the surprisingly good ones in X-Men: The Last Stand were a one-off that probably owed more to a well storyboarded second unit than him finally learning how to shoot action. No surprises in what passes for a plot but is really just an excuse for the two stars to strut their stuff - when you’ve got an ex-Bond villain in the cast there aren’t many shocks who the baddie turns out to be, though Chan turning out to have a Japanese brother in the triads must have caused a few raised eyebrows in Hong Kong. Yet while it’s a long way from the surprisingly enjoyable first entry in the series, it’s still watchable if you’re in a particularly undemanding mood, and Chan has certainly done much worse for American studios.
The film was a notoriously troubled production, with Ratner’s reportedly lax work ethic seeing him spending so much time on his mobile phone rather than shooting the film that studio chief Robert Shaye tried to have his signal jammed to get him to do some work, with no success, even taking the rare step of publicly criticising him in the press before the movie even opened. Wildly overbudget and overschedule the picture had to very expensively move from Paris (a bureaucratic nightmare to shoot in even if you are being professional about it) back to Los Angeles, ending up costing more than four times as much as the original, losing money on its theatrical release and killing the franchise. Absolutely none of which is covered in the multitude of special features, which go the usual puff piece route of everybody was wonderful and we all had a great time without a care in the world.
The US three-film Blu-ray set’s only new addition, aside from an unimpressive pop art style cover and slipcase, is a fourth disc with a 20 minute featurette with Ratner and Chan looking back at the series, though it’s worth noting that it’s a studio-approved love-in that avoids mentioning Chan’s oft repeated comments about not being fond of the films or getting the humour and just doing them for the money to help fund his own project sat home, let alone his criticism of not being given the time he was promised to shoot the action scenes in the second film properly because Ratner had no interest in them.