RUSH HOUR

PG-13

-By Maitland McDonagh


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Sixteen years ago, 48 HRS. defined a particular variant on the action thriller, mismatching a young, smart-talking, angle-working African-American with no respect for rules-Eddie Murphy at his freshest and most engaging-with a starchy by-the-book type (white, of course), and putting them on the trail of a crime. Rush Hour is its direct, degenerate descendent-softer, lazier, more sitcom-like and, despite all that, pretty brainlessly entertaining.

Rush Hour puts the tiniest spin on the formula to make it look new: The straight guy is martial-arts legend Jackie Chan as Inspector Lee, a Hong Kong cop. Lee is brought to L.A. at the request of his old friend Consul Han (Tzi Ma) to help investigate the kidnapping of Han's young daughter, but finds himself fobbed off on an arrogant, self-important LAPD screw-up named James Carter (Tucker). Carter at first imagines the assignment as his golden opportunity, a chance to impress the FBI agents working the kidnapping and grease his own way into their rarefied ranks. But Carter quickly realizes that they think he's a joke and just want him to baby-sit Lee, whom he thinks is a provincial dope. So Carter decides to go behind the FBI's back and rescue the missing girl, and resigns himself to having to have Lee along for the ride.

That's pretty much all that needs to be said about the plot, except that it also involves Hong Kong triads, a suave Englishman (Tom Wilkinson of The Full Monty) who isn't precisely what he seems, a sexy bomb expert (Elizabeth Pe╦ťa) whose skills don't go to waste, and a priceless collection of Chinese art that winds up in the middle of a no-holds-barred shootout. None of it matters much. What matters is the rapport between Chan and Tucker and, fortunately, they have one. In fact, they complement one another surprisingly well. The high-kicking Chan, a master of insanely dangerous stunts and split-second timing, has always fashioned himself as a physical comedian: He claims in interviews that Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are his idols. But Rush Hour makes him the straight man (perhaps because with the show-offy Tucker going at it full-throttle, there just plain isn't room in this universe for anybody else to even try to be funny), and a very fine straight man he proves to be.

Small and solid and dressed like a Miami Beach gangster, Chan spends much of the movie with a slightly puzzled look on his face, watching Tucker go off like a rude Roman candle. Poor Chan must endure endless jokes about how unhip he is: He likes the Beach Boys, doesn't speak English (though, in fact, he does), isn't down with the body language of flashy gangstas. Then he flies into action and he's the coolest thing on Earth, a whirling dervish who's all fists and feet, the action-movie equivalent of the dowdy librarian unpinning her hair and taking off her glasses to become Marilyn Monroe. It's a pretty basic gag, but damned if it doesn't work time and time again. Tucker is Tucker, a lean and lanky know-it-all in the style of Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence, with whom he's interchangeable in this kind of movie. Director Brett Ratner, who came up through music-videos and directed Tucker in last year's Money Talks, indulges Tucker's broad shtick and shrill grandstanding in the full awareness that Tucker is an audience-pleaser who knows how to play to the kind of audience he pleases.

It all goes on a bit too long: The climax rolls around about 15 minutes later than it should, and outstays its welcome by a hair. But Rush Hour is dumb fun that actually is fun, and there's always a place for that.

--Maitland McDonagh


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