Each week in November, the Deadshirt crew is partnering up for a look at cinema’s defining Buddy Cop movies. This week: Andrew “Nemo” Neimann and David Lebovitz get caught up in Rush Hour.
Nemo: Lebo and I were assigned one of the most memorable films of 1998: Rush Hour. First off, I think this is probably the movie that introduced me to Jackie Chan as a kid even if he was already a pretty well established actor. I remember renting this from Blockbuster because I really liked Lethal Weapon and this looked similar.
Lebo: It’s funny that you mention that, because that’s exactly what this film brought to mind for me. I rented it a few years later than that, but it brings me right back to scouring the aisles at my local Blockbuster for a fun film to watch with my dad over the weekend.
Nemo: This movie has a pretty simple set-up. A Chinese diplomat’s daughter gets captured and he sends his best man, Lee (Jackie Chan), to find her. He gets paired up with an LA detective named Carter (Chris Tucker) who earns the case after nearly blowing up a suspect and potentially getting two fellow officers killed. There is no earthly reason why Carter would get assigned this but, hilariously, he does anyway.
Lebo: The sense I got was because the LAPD knew it was a crap assignment and wanted to punish him for being A Loose Cannon Who Plays By His Own Rules. The IMDb summary for the film is just “Two cops team up to get back a kidnapped daughter” and I’m like, well, yeah, that about covers it.
Nemo: This movie is definitely like a more comedic version of 48 Hrs. where Chan is a fish-out-of-water “good cop” paired up with Tucker’s loud, brash “bad cop.” Speaking of comedy, does this movie’s humor hold up? I feel like there’s a ton of laughs in some places but most of the race related humor is especially dated. Carter now comes across as a huge jerk compared to Lee, especially early on in the film.
Lebo: Some of the humor is universal and will always hold up. Both Chan and Tucker have impeccable comic timing. Tucker’s a funny guy just to LOOK at, and he clearly knows it. Much of the best humor is the banter between the characters—buddy cop films live and die on chemistry, and there’s a reason Chan and Tucker made two more of these films.
Nemo: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s fun to rag on Brett Ratner for being kind of an awful director, but his Rush Hour franchise is a worthy addition to pop culture, especially the first film. I like Ratner’s very diverse take on LA which just isn’t all white schmucks in suits and police uniforms.
Lebo: It’s a bit of a sidebar, but you raise a good point. I know 90s nostalgia is pretty hacky at this point, but I distinctly remember 90s TV shows and films being more diverse than they are now—and visibly so.
Nemo: The strongest humor in the film definitely comes from the music-related jokes. I love Carter telling Lee “never to touch a black man’s radio.” The Edwin Starr “War” singalong still stands as an all-time incredible character moment. I absolutely adored the short gag of Soo-Yung singing Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” in the car before she gets kidnapped. Ditto Carter blowing up a car and then dancing to a few bars of Jackson’s “Another Part of Me” seemingly out of nowhere. Rush Hour has a cartoonish approach to the crime genre that really makes it feel less serious and more fun.
Lebo: The “War” bit is one of those iconic movie moments that feels like it’ll be lost to time a bit, which is sad, because it’s a great character moment for Carter and Lee. The humor that holds up the worst for me is specifically the racial humor directed at Asians. While I wouldn’t exactly call it cringeworthy or even that mean-spirited, it certainly feels dated. All the Chinese food jokes towards Lee just feel hacky. Carter bringing Lee to Grauman’s Chinese Theater is a hilarious moment at first, because Carter is probably being a bit serious and just not getting it. Him throwing in that line about maybe finding one of his cousins feels…unnecessary.
Nemo: Yeah, absolutely. And it even gets directed at Asian extras in the cast to the point of feeling a little tired.
Lebo: But watching Jackie Chan do martial arts moves while Chris Tucker dances is one of the high points of this film, and always the part I remember most after revisiting
Nemo: I keep thinking about critic Dan Chiasson of The New Yorker who called Chan a “weaponized Gene Kelly” and I’ve never heard anything more accurate.
Lebo: I will always, always, always marvel at Chan’s martial artistry. He famously does most of his own stunts, and as a result there’s always a sense of real danger in his films. His ability to do these complex, high risk moves adds a genuine sense of drama and anxiety to everything he’s ever done. Heights and I don’t get along, so watching Chan jump down from several Actual Stories down and straddling rafters made me want a case of Tums. Martial artistry is a big tent with a lot of styles so it’s difficult to generalize, but most films and TV shows that feature martial arts act like it’s mostly offense and ducking at the right time. In reality, many of the more common martial arts styles are largely defensive in nature and focus on using your opponent’s weight and momentum against them. Chan communicates this beautifully in his fight scenes. He doesn’t brutalize his opponents, he finds creative ways to disarm and immobilize them.
Nemo: What did you think about the villains in the film? I kept getting distracted by Ken Leung as Sang because he’s also Miles from Lost. I also thought it was kinda funny that Tom Wilkinson was essentially playing The Mandarin from Iron Man 3 with the reveal of him being Juntao.
Lebo: Oh damn, that is…jarringly accurate, even if he’s actually competent rather than a puppet. I did enjoy his reveal; they held off on it until the end of the second act, and seeing him in the slow pan kind of shocks you back into the film. It didn’t have to happen, per se, but it raised the stakes.
Nemo: Yeah, I almost wonder if they reveal his involvement too early. However, if they had waited until a reveal at the end it would have been cliche. Although that doesn’t stop a whole lot of blockbusters even these days.
Lebo: Yeah, I’m generally not a fan of films that do that without dropping a lot of hints first, and Rush Hour isn’t exactly a place for subtlety. I’d say the villain was revealed at about the right time. Plus, it led to some dramatic irony later when he showed up at the consulate and suggested to give the money. He was given a decent motive and all the means and opportunity in the world, and I can live with that
Nemo: Wilkinson does a good job of looking slightly menacing in those FBI scenes. Honestly, I wish this movie had MORE Tom Wilkinson. We spend quite a bit of time with Sang and he’s offed pretty quickly in the climax. Speaking of Sang, I think my favorite part of this film/franchise is that it gets its title from a completely throwaway line from a throwaway goon.
Lebo: I think about that a lot. All told, there’s precious little driving in the film—most of the chases are on foot, and even the vehicle chases are short and still usually involve at least one party on the ground. It’s a dinky little line said by a villain for no real reason during the only traffic jam in the whole film. Yet it works.
Nemo: You know who I wish got a more expanded role in this movie? Elizabeth Pena’s bomb squad character. She kinda gets introduced as a foil and possible love interest for Carter, but then disappears halfway through the movie only to come back as a plot device to deactivate the bomb vest.
Lebo: Yeah, there was a distinct sense that maybe in an earlier version of the script they get together but it was phased out. She’s solid whenever she’s on screen, but doesn’t get much screen time in the first place. Also not a huge fan of the fact that we only see her screw up a bomb in training once and watch her cut the wire correctly by making a lucky guess.
Nemo: Yeah the old eeny, meeny, miney, moe trick always seems to work in movies.
Lebo: Except in The Hurt Locker, but that’s another story.
Nemo: So, anyway, back to the narrative of the film. After causing a cultural misunderstanding with a certain racial slur at a local watering hole, Lee get handcuffed to a car by Carter. Lee then escapes and breaks into an FBI safehouse basically one-handed, where he is mistaken for the kidnapper. Rush Hour is certainly a movie about miscommunication. But seriously, Lee beats the crap out of so many FBI agents before the diplomat explains the situation. Where is the actual protocol here? Although the FBI being largely incompetent is one of the best running gags in the film and sadly very relevant if you followed the election.
Lebo: Yeah, I love how an unarmed man shows up at a consulate and their first thought is “let’s point our gun at him.”
Nemo: That brings up a great point. Does Lee ever use a gun in the film? I wanna say that he never does even though I know he carries one.
Lebo: The closest we got, I think, was that scene at the beginning, where he points the gun at several people but seemingly can’t bring himself to fire his weapon. Every time he finds himself in possession of a gun in America, he seemingly tries to destroy it. He breaks down the FBI agent’s gun to its basic components and when he grabs onto Sang’s uzi he mostly depletes a round into the air. He’s never given much of a reason for it, but Lee is show to be viscerally uncomfortable when dealing guns, and it works because Chan is supremely underrated as an actor.
Nemo: I really just love the idea of a cop that rejects gun violence in this day and age. After Carter catches up to Lee, the FBI are set up with a false ransom and then get blown up with a bomb because, once again, incompetence. Carter and Lee are kinda blamed for it but it ends up in a lead to a restaurant in Chinatown where Carter attempts to order some weird stuff in order to meet the mysterious Juntao.
Lebo: I feel like Carter saying that the eel was good but could use some hot sauce summed up their dynamic pretty well.
Nemo: This movie actually has a political bent in the background that isn’t as relevant now. The film takes place on the last day of British sovereignty, when the UK released Hong Kong as a territory in 1997. This explains why Griffin/Juntao (Tom Wilkinson) is an old white British imperialist who is an avid collector of Chinese art, leading directly to the climax in an art museum which undoubtedly has lots of stolen historical artifacts.
Lebo: Yeah, Juntao’s motive has a bit of a colonial bent, where he thinks that just because he obtained something means that he has the right to it. I like how they loudly seemed like they were going to set the final confrontation up to be a big property-destroying massacre, when in reality, the property damage was pretty minimal, save for two solid gags.
Nemo: We haven’t talked about Soo Yung a lot, but I like how capable she is. She even gives Sang a hard time capturing her and plays along with Carter’s distraction plan pretty well. Kids in action movies can be pretty annoying at times but I never really found her to be in that category.
Lebo: I like how they established her as a student of Lee’s, which let her have a little moment when being captured. Normally watching a small child fend off attackers is strange in films, but they made it plausible. Her calling Wilkinson’s bluff by yelling for him to press the trigger was pretty awesome. The actress who played Soo never appeared in another feature film after this.
Nemo: So, basically the movie ends with the girl saved and the villains killed. Carter and Lee get a trip to Hong Kong which sounds like an attempt at setting up a sequel but they never even leave Los Angeles in the second one. I know they brought back Soo-Yung for the third one but it wasn’t the same actress. Any final thoughts on the film?
Lebo: I’d like to take a moment to highlight the “my daddy can beat up your daddy” exchange Lee and Carter had.
Nemo: Oh yeah! Nearly forgot to mention Carter’s dad. His one moment of clarity comes from him not making peace with how his father dies and explains why he is ambivalent about having a partner.
Lebo: Also, the phrase “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” will follow Chris Tucker to his grave. It’s the clip news organizations will invariably show when he dies and they need a tribute piece for him ready.
Nemo: I do remember people quoting this movie a lot when it came out. Tucker doesn’t have a lot of film roles but almost all of them are completely memorable.
Lebo: One of the most surprising parts of this film is that Tucker didn’t have much of a film career before this, and seemingly has less of one since. Maybe he prefers to focus on stand up, but there is something sad about someone so profoundly talented having so few roles. Rush Hour is undeniably dated, but the killer chemistry between Chan and Tucker will always hold up. While it might not be as quotable as it used to be, it’s still a perfectly enjoyable film that’s just as comfortable being quippy as it is kicking ass.
Check Deadshirt throughout the month of November for more Buddy Cops!