Chris Tucker still believes in Michael Jackson. You can tell, because in the very first scene of Rush Hour 3, the actor-comedian squeals melodically, grabs his crotch, and throws his arms up to the heavens. All that's missing is a giant offstage fan to make Tucker's shirt billow out behind him, as Jackson's did when he was feeling "Dangerous." A tip of the hat to the erstwhile King of Pop is a staple of Tucker's comedy and of the Rush Hour films themselves, dating back to the original 1998 entry in the popular buddy-cop series, in which Tucker's LAPD detective, James Carter, instructed Inspector Lee — the Hong Kong cop played by Jackie Chan — on the hierarchy of their new partnership: "I'm Michael Jackson. You're Tito."
Watching Tucker do his Gloved One shtick at the start of RH3, it struck me as sweet that the comedian has stayed loyal to his troubled friend (Tucker testified on the singer's behalf at Jackson's 2005 child molestation trial), but a half-dozen scenes later, I began to wonder if the MJ dance wasn't actually a subconscious signal from Tucker — and by extension, Rush Hour series director Brett Ratner — to his audience, saying: "I've been gone from the screen for six years, but I haven't changed. This is what I do, this is what you love, and this is what you're going to get."
Comedy sequels, for the most part, are exercises in nostalgia. Filmmakers, anxious studio execs, and willing audiences collude to create a forum in which they can tell, and we can laugh at, the same joke twice (or thrice) and, in so doing, go back in time to the point at which the joke was fresh and original. It's a bit like the system-restore function in computers that allows us to reset our hard drives to an earlier configuration, thereby wiping out all the errors and bad downloads we've made since. In the case of Rush Hour 3, the joke we're meant to love again is the one about the mousy-voiced African-American comic teaming up with the seriously goofy Chinese martial arts master.
In this third telling of that very profitable premise, Carter and Lee travel to Paris, where they're given a decidedly unfriendly welcome by a French police inspector (Roman Polanski, at his snarky best) and later enlist an America-hating cabbie (French filmmaker Yvan Attal, stealing the show) in their search for the kidnapped daughter (Jingchu Zhang) of the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. (Tzi Ma). A Chinese triad wants to silence the ambassador, but I must admit that only a few hours after seeing this movie, I couldn't quite recall why. Instead, my mind's eye called up a small moment from the movie's elegantly staged and superbly photographed (by cinematographer J. Michael Muro) Eiffel Tower finale, when Lee, jumping for his life, scurries like a spider up a giant French flag, wrapping himself inside it as he goes. It's classic Chan, basic to the Asian film stunt handbook. But there's an exhilarating joy in Chan's eagerness to execute such moves as if, after all these years and all the complex fight scenes he's been in, the basics are plenty satisfying. He's still the Gene Kelly of martial arts.
Tucker and Ratner can't even begin to match Chan's grace, but to their credit, they seem to know it. A consistent highlight of this family-friendly (these action heroes never get laid) guilty pleasure of a series is the end-credits outtakes montage, which sometimes reveals Chan mistiming a stunt — a reassuring sight for us mere mortals — but more often shows him and Tucker flubbing the simplest of lines. Both men have trouble enunciating: You can hear their oh-so-patient dialogue coach feeding them the correct pronunciation from the sidelines, usually to no avail. The black comic and the Asian hero crack each other up, and watching them delight in each other perhaps explains why they return for more every five or six years — not for the dough, which must be substantial, but for the merriment of it all. Laughter, it seems, is even more valuable to them than back-end points on a zillion-dollar hit.