The masses have spoken: third time's the charm. The threequels of Spider-Man, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean are the three top-grossing films of 2007. The Bourne Ultimatum opened to sensational business last week and promises to be the biggest moneymaker of the three Matt Damon spy thrillers.
Now comes Rush Hour 3, with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker reprising their roles as two detectives with clashing personalities and, in previous installments, a lock on the box office. The first movie was a surprise hit, earning $141 million in North America and $244 million worldwide. The sequel upped the domestic take by 60%, the worldwide gross by 42%. Simple arithmetic called for No. 3. And here it is.
The difference is that the first Rush Hour, from 1998, predated any of the other franchises by three years. Indeed, Rush Hour 2 came out in 2001 the same year as the initial episodes of Spider-Man and Shrek, a year before Bourne was born and two years before Johnny Depp muttered his first Yo-ho-ho. In the blockbuster biz, six years is a long time nearly half the age of Rush Hour 3's target teen. Kids will need their older brothers to tell them the Chan-Tucker camaraderie was once worth paying to watch.
And it's not as if the two stars have burnished their luster. Tucker, the falsetto funnyman whose career was launched with sharp supporting roles in Money Talks and Friday, had made no non-Rush Hour films, none, in a decade. By some accounts Tucker is the world's highest paid actor, getting a reported $25 million for RH 3; yet he seems a star in seclusion from his own celebrity.
Chan, the sweet-souled masochist of Hong Kong action comedies, made four Hollywood-based movies after Rush Hour 2, plus three starring roles in Hong Kong films, but they didn't do much business, and one, Around the World in 80 Days, cost $110 million to produce and took in far less than half that. After 53 years on this planet, 30 as the hardest working star on any continent, with virtually every bone in his body broken while performing his daredevil stunts, Chan may have worn out not his welcome so much as himself.
So it's a pleasure to report that the new Rush Hour is... OK. Brett Ratner, who directed the first two episodes (as well as the third X-Men and the Hannibal Lecter movie Red Dragon), isn't out to win an Oscar here; the movie is as lacking in visual elegance as it is in pretension. Its first reel or two sets a fairly low bar for the viewer, so that when it perks up it exceeds expectations. The division of labor is the same as in the first two films: Jackie kicks ass; Chris kicks sass. Ratner's challenge, and that of screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, is giving the stars enough comedy byplay to keep audiences awake between the big action scenes, and RH 3 gets it done. Of all the buddy movies this summer, this one has the solidest chemistry.
Chief Inspector Lee (Chan) has been assigned to guard the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. against a death threat by Hong Kong triads. The ambassador is murdered by an assailant named Kenji (Hiroyuki Sanada), whom Lee tracks down but can't bring himself to kill because decades ago they were in the same orphanage. Detective Carter (Tucker), demoted to traffic cop, hooks up with Lee and wheedles his way into a trip to Paris, where an international dignitary (Max von Sydow) has given them the mission to hunt down the triad gang and its secret boss. Anyone who's seen von Sydow in Three Days of the Condor, Majority Report or several other thrillers he's made on vacation from his great Ingmar Bergman films doesn't need me to finger Monsieur Big. It would be the movie's biggest surprise if he weren't the brains behind the triad.
Local Parisian color is provided by some unusual suspects: director Roman Polanski as a police inspector with a sideline in proctology; Noemie Lenoir as a chanteuse whom Carter has a dalliance with before suspecting that she's a female impersonator ("I went to second base with a man! It's The Crying Games! I'm Brokeback Carter!"); and actor-director Yvan Attal (My Wife Is an Actress) playing a cab driver who switches from anti-Americanism to pro-Hollywoodism once he becomes embroiled in one of the Lee-Carter chase scenes. "Now I know what it is to be an American," he says as he merrily dodges a car full of killers. "Let me shoot someone." (I didn't say the movie was subtle, just that it's easy to sit through.)
Directors of summer action films know how to get a PG-13: show all the fighting you would in an R-rated film, but don't show the toll it takes on the loser. Punches are fine, but no closeups of broken jaws; throw a guy off a rooftop, but don't show him landing impaled on an obelisk. Rush Hour 3 observes these niceties while twitting another MPAA rule: no four-letter words. In an early scene where Carter is interrogating a French-speaking thug through an interpreter, he gets exasperated and shouts: "You tell this piece of s-word that I will personally f-word him up." Excellent solution.
While Tucker keeps the comedy percolating, Chan mans the action scenes: the chase in L.A. of his old friend-nemesis Kenji; a bout of farcical fisticuffs with a, like, 9-ft.-tall martial artist; a wild ride in the taxicab; a decent hand-to-hand skirmish with a female ninja in a Paris casino; a swordfight with Kenji; and a two-against-the-world battle at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Chan has insisted he did his own stunts, just like in the old days (so it's odd to see that the Internet Movie Database lists one performer, Zhang Peng, as "stunt double: Jackie Chan"). He still moves plausibly through the mayhem, which is what an action film requires. Maybe the climax here doesn't bear comparison with the jaw-droppingly great set pieces in Chan's Dragons Forever or Drunken Master 2 or, for that matter, with Damon's big fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum but it's way more frenetic and cunningly choreographed than the digitally enhanced brawls in most modern action movies.
To put this in perspective: the first Rush Hour was a pretty good movie, the second one pretty lame. The threequel is somewhere in between: nothing special but with a high amiability quotient. The two stars know they click; it's no crime for them to extend and exploit that good vibe one more time.
In the mandatory blooper bits that accompany the closing credits, there's one where Tucker has just heard an angry Chan tell him they're not brothers. "I'm not your brother?" he squeals. "After all that we been through? Rush Hour 1? Rush Hour Hour 2?" That line alone justifies sitting through Rush Hour 3. I mean, what do you want from a summer threequel anyway?