Starring Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Tom Wilkinson, Tzi Ma, Ken Leung, Elizabeth Peña, Mark Rolston, Rex Linn, Julia Hsu, Chris Penn, Philip Baker Hall, John Hawkes
Directed by Brett Ratner
Expectations: Interested to revisit it.
And so begins my descent into madness — I mean, the American films of Jackie Chan. While I have always been happy that Jackie achieved global success, his transition to Hollywood definitely leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality filmmaking. For newcomers to his work, I suppose the flashes of fearless stunts and athleticism are welcome and shocking additions to the American action film, but to anyone who’s seen one of his Hong Kong films, it’s hard not to be somewhat disappointed with the watered-down Jackie Chan present in Rush Hour. That being said, Rush Hour is just about exactly what a “Jackie Chan comes to Hollywood” movie should be, providing the audience with an ample amount of action and lighthearted comedy.
Jackie Chan has often said that Hong Kong directors know action and American directors know story. Rush Hour isn’t the best showcase of this “knowledge of story” that Jackie speaks of, but there is a fundamental difference in the way Hollywood films are structured that is in evidence. If you look at a movie like Mr. Nice Guy, it’s easy to see how the story was built up around the action set-pieces in a way to string them together as seamlessly as possible. Lots of Hong Kong films feel similarly (but Jackie is wrong, there are plenty of Hong Kong directors who understand story!), whereas Rush Hour is clearly set up with the story as its foundation and the action arising where it can. It’s kind of a subtle distinction in Rush Hour, as the story is pretty thin. It’s a key difference, though, and consequently there aren’t any huge, extended action scenes in Rush Hour.
By this time in Jackie’s career, he had finally gained enough clout in Hollywood to get his wish of handling his own action. Thanks to this, Rush Hour represents the best example of Jackie Chan when comparing it to his previous attempts at US stardom: The Big Brawl and The Protector. The lack of anything lengthy hinders the film a lot in my opinion, as does the absence of wide shots within the action, but Jackie has done a great job here in crafting small, memorable moments of action that season the film well. The brief bit where he attempts to save an ancient Chinese vase while fighting is probably my favorite, but the tandem fight with Chris Tucker in the restaurant is a lot of fun, as well. If nothing else, Jackie’s choreography was largely unlike anything generally seen in American films at the time, so audiences were quick to latch on to it no matter how short the bursts.
I do wonder how Jackie felt about Rush Hour echoing Enter the Dragon. Lalo Schifrin’s score for Rush Hour is obviously written to recall and “update” his own Enter the Dragon score. Jackie began his Hong Kong career in the shadow of Bruce Lee, and he fought hard to define himself in the industry on his own terms. There’s assuredly a lot of honor and pride in becoming the first Hong Kong star since Bruce Lee to make it in America, but I can’t imagine Jackie enjoyed that he was still seen somewhat within his shadow. Beyond Jackie, though, this probably speaks more to Hollywood’s inherent fear of risk, and simply going back to what had previously been very successful in a similar situation.
My consumption of Jackie Chan films has been limited over the last few years to his Hong Kong work (and his ’80s American films), so finally re-visiting Rush Hour made it really stand out against the stark, no bullshit quality that Hong Kong cinema was built on in the 1980s and ’90s. In contrast, Rush Hour feels so artificially constructed; there’s no way to watch this movie and not be completely aware of it as a movie. The lack of any real emotions in the script furthers this, as there is nothing to distract and involve the mind. Jackie’s charm and skills are obviously very real, but the big stunt of the film is at least in part constructed through editing, softening its impact considerably. The only thing that felt legitimate and believable was the relationship and mutual love between Jackie and Soo Yung (Julia Hsu). They share a minimum of screen time, but Jackie’s performance effortlessly makes us believe that he cares deeply about her and will do whatever it takes to keep her safe.
In spite of whatever issues I take with the film, Rush Hour exists as a great example of letting Jackie be Jackie within the confines of an American film (and its insurance restrictions). It’s not a great film — flimsy story, the action is far from what Jackie was capable of at the time, it’s filled with questionable Asian jokes — but the pair of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan is solid, and the supporting cast is quite strong. In an American film, this is ultimately what matters the most. Rush Hour successfully re-introduced Jackie Chan to Hollywood filmmaking, but it’s also mediocre by the standards of Jackie’s entire filmography.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is the first of two documentaries that Jackie directed about himself: 1998’s Jackie Chan: My Story! See ya then!