Back in the days of “Beverly Hills Cop,” it was hard to imagine that a comic would ever want, or need, to speak faster than Eddie Murphy, the machine-gun-mouthed master of street braggadocio. Chris Tucker, the only performer worth watching in “Rush Hour,” speaks much, much faster than Murphy. He’s a verbal speed freak, spewing entire sentences–sometimes two at a time–in a single frenzied thought blast. Tucker likes to pitch his voice as high as a banshee wail, and he drops consonants as if he didn’t have the time to enunciate them. He sounds as if he’s channeling some funky Southern housewife/diva as she sasses her misbehaved son. If the hint of gender-bending mockery is sheer play, so is the gaze of pop-eyed fury that Tucker applies to just about every white person on screen.
With his angry hustler’s put-on screech, Chris Tucker, at times, flirts with turning himself into a scamp minstrel show. Yet even that he does knowingly–satirically. Anarchic yet sleek, he’s a razory jester who’s in desperate need of being cast in a wild comedy, and not just some rubbishy generic “action comedy.” His whole antic persona is based on his not giving a damn about the big picture–Tucker’s sole focus, à la Groucho Marx, is on what’s directly in front of him–and that attitude only reinforces the cruddiness of a vehicle like “Rush Hour.” The film isn’t worth giving a damn about either.
Tucker’s bad-boy cop is paired with a Chinese superagent played by Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong action star who is now threatening to turn into a minstrel show of his own. The two characters team up in Los Angeles to locate the kidnapped 10-year-old daughter of a Chinese diplomat. Chan still doesn’t speak very fluent English–his body tends to do the talking for him–and in Rush Hour, the communication barrier becomes a springboard for the film’s only sustained concept, as the exasperated black cop tosses off “harmlessly” racist Asian jokes. (Tucker to Chinese thug: “I been lookin’ for your sweet-and-sour chicken ass!”) None of this would matter as much if Chan the martial-arts demon had been allowed to cut loose, but he gets only one great combat moment, in which he fights off a bunch of attackers while trying to prop up a priceless vase.
Like Tucker’s last star vehicle, 1997’s “Money Talks,” “Rush Hour” represents the dregs of the buddy comedy. The two characters barely even have a relationship; they’re a union of demographics–the “urban” market meets the slapstick-action market. Chan deserves better, but then, he’s had better. Tucker is another story, a dervish of a comic who has practically been baptized in clichés, yet always brings a touch of original madness to them. He’s so much faster than the movies he’s in. He wouldn’t be the first star to force Hollywood to play catch-up.