January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Chris Tucker’s mixed film success

Unfiltered Chris Tucker is dangerous for patients with high blood pressure. The fast-talking, slang-spewing young comic with the voice pitched somewhere between that of Butterfly McQueen and Mr. Bill does not brake for children, animals, or fussbudgets who don’t fully appreciate his exaggerated hood-speak or his killer impersonations of stereotypical hustlers, dealers, drag queens, and other identifiable urban fauna. Whether these caricatures are a top-quality use of his talents is, in the long run, up for debate; what’s clear is that Tucker, at the larval age of 26, is famous for his motormouth. Moviegoers got their first jolt of it five years ago in House Party 3, in a small appearance as a party promoter that carried far more voltage than his few minutes on screen might suggest. But with the guy’s juice cranked so high, proper movie-project wiring is crucial to prevent audience circuit overload.

Which is what’s so great about Rush Hour: What might have been just a copycat action-comedy hybrid — part Lethal Weapon– and 48 HRS.-influenced odd-couple cop-buddy caper, part synthetic Hong Kong chop and kick — may instead herald the start of a beautiful friendship and a rewarding Hollywood franchise between Tucker and veteran martial-arts showman Jackie Chan. Tucker plays a cocky Los Angeles Police Department goof-up (insert your own LAPD joke here) shunted off to a booby-prize job distracting visiting Hong Kong cop Chan from his L.A. assignment to track down the kidnapped daughter of a Chinese diplomat (the FBI wants to handle the case alone). And his parody swagger, his caffeinated cockiness, is perfectly, wittily challenged by a truly great (and invitingly funny) martial artist — who can barely speak English! Chan’s cultural references couldn’t be farther from Tucker’s jive — and both benefit: Who else could get away with greeting a massive black barkeep in a gambling joint (taking American conversational cues from his streetwise host) with ”Whassup, my nigga?”

Anyhow, no further proof is needed of the inspired pairing in Rush Hour than a rewind of 1997’s failed chemistry experiment called Money Talks. Same workaday director (Brett Ratner), same yakety Tucker. But with huffing-and-puffing Charlie Sheen as a foil (Sheen’s an ambitious TV reporter, Tucker’s a small-potatoes scam artist inadvertently privy to the scoop that can help the reporter break a big smuggling-and-murder story), this grating, styleless mess displays Tucker at his most exhausting. He’s not helped, either, by Sheen at his most unnecessarily aggrandized — and, for good measure, Paul Sorvino at his most ethnically pigeonholed.

Of course, it’s not entirely Sheen’s fault that the two performers don’t click. What with Tucker’s very projectile performance style, sometimes the best thing a cast and director can do is stand back while he burns and sparks. In Jackie Brown, director Quentin Tarantino smartly gave the young actor a small, powerful role as a drug punk — then moved him out of the picture for good. In the outré sci-fi adventure The Fifth Element, cowriter-director Luc Besson had the vision to recognize the outrageous drag queen talk-show hostess trapped in the comedian’s slim, wiry body, and let him loose as Ruby Rhod, a kind of interstellar descendant of RuPaul, glammed up in a Gaultier gown and big yellow wig; that Tucker and star Bruce Willis appear to be acting on different planets hardly matters because the whole production appears to take place in another galaxy, that of an overheated Frenchman channeling American science fiction.

As for the Hughes Brothers’ ambitious Dead Presidents, about one black man’s descent from 1960s political awakening to Vietnam horror to economic desperation and the violence it can unleash, the 1995 movie is defeated by unwieldiness. But Tucker, in his most serious role, stakes out a chilling corner for himself as a miserable junkie.

The sweetest, funniest, most essential Chris Tucker performance, though, for my talking money, my dead presidents, is his first big starring role, in F. Gary Gray’s Friday — the 1995 sleeper comedy, shaggy like a fox, in which Ice Cube reveals his melting side, and Tucker, playing Cube’s pal, snaps and rolls along with him. As a couple of South Central L.A. nabe fellows with no jobs and nowhere to be, messing around to pass the time, the two are so relaxed and happy, the air so funky with the scent of hot young talent (hey, it’s wonderful Regina King as Ice Cube’s sister, sleeping propped up so her ‘do doesn’t get smooshed), you can’t inhale it enough.

Rush Hour: B+
Money Talks: D+
The Fifth Element: C+
Dead Presidents: B-
Friday: A-

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