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The Popcorn King

Itºs a bright March afternoon on the set of Rush Hour 3, and the mood is tense. After shooting last winter on location in Paris, the production has returned to Los Angeles behind schedule and over budget. The Supermarine Executive Air Terminal of the Santa Monica Airport has been transformed into the Paris—Le Bourget airport, and on the tarmac, stars Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan rehearse what is to be the filmºs final scene — a friendly farewell between their characters, LAPD Detective James Carter and Hong Kong police inspector Lee. More than 100 days into a shoot that has entailed multiple complicated action and stunt sequences, this should be a cinch. But at the playback monitor, Brett Ratner, the director who has guided the Rush Hour series since the beginning, feels something is off.At one point in the scene, Chan turns to Tucker and affectionately says, ÑYou will always be my nigga.æ But Ratner thinks Chanºs annunciation is causing Ñniggaæ to sound too much like a certain undesirable expletive. Tucker could live without the line altogether, no matter that itºs an intentional echo of a signature Chan line — ÑWhatºs up, my nigga?æ — from the first Rush Hour film in 1998.ÑYouºve got this great movie and youºre gonna end it with this racist word,æ Tucker chides Ratner only half jokingly, before warning Chan: ÑEvery black person in America is going to hate you.æ ÑYouºve been spending too much time with Oprah,æ Ratner fires back in reference to Tuckerºs recent trip to Africa in the company of the talk-show host. Language, as I quickly discover, functions as a kind of currency on a Rush Hour set. It is, on the one hand, the very bedrock of a movie franchise predicated on culture clash. ÑDo you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?æ the fast-talking Tucker memorably asked the English-impaired Asian superstar upon their initial meeting in L.A. during the first Rush Hour film. It was the obvious answer — ÑNoæ — that lent both Rush Hour and its 2001 sequel (which deposited Tuckerºs character on the streets of Hong Kong) much of their fish-out-of-water comedy. A not dissimilar scene transpired when Chan and Tucker first met in real life, with each actor subsequently telling Ratner that he hadnºt understood a thing the other had said. It was then that Ratner knew he had hit upon the chemistry that has proven key to the enormous popularity of the Rush Hour franchise. It is likewise language — specifically, the acrobatic juggling of it — that has established Tucker as the most verbally dexterous screen comic since the young Eddie Murphy. On the Rush Hour 3 set, he rarely says a line the same way twice, and the more he improvises, the better things tend to get. But like some mathematical savant who can solve an impossible calculus proof but gets tripped up by an ordinary addition problem, Tucker sometimes flubs or simply forgets an important bit of dialogue. In the end-credits outtakes of Rush Hour, the actor could be seen foiling take after take of the line, ÑWho do they think they kidnapped, Chelsea Clinton?æ Audiences who stay to the end of Rush Hour 3 can see Tucker engaged in a similarly Sisyphean struggle with the name of the fast-food chain El Pollo Loco. Meanwhile, despite a decade of actively working in Hollywood, Chanºs English remains spotty. His dialogue coach, Diana Weng, is present at all times, holding a clipboard just off-camera on which Chanºs lines are written out in large block letters. Still, Tuckerºs habit of going off-book can leave Chan in the lurch. All of which makes great fodder for the blooper reel, but adds to the anxiety on the set.In a Los Angeles Times profile published a few days prior to my set visit, New Line Cinema CEO Bob Shaye, whose studio has produced all three Rush Hour films, laid much of the blame for the productionºs overages at Ratnerºs feet, even going so far as to call it Ña betrayal of the trust New Line has put into him.æ (Ratner responded by calling Shaye penny wise and pound foolish.) But when I show up, Ratner seems largely unfazed, despite the presence of New Lineºs gruff, wheelchair-bound vice president of physical production, Leon Dudevoir, who has been sent by the studio to keep a watchful eye on the shooting. Like many people I talk to about Ratner over the following weeks and months, my own first impression of the 38-year-old director is one of boyish enthusiasm mixed with intractable persistence. Following a short break for lunch, Chanºs line has been changed. ÑYou will always be my homie,æ he now says. But Ratner still insists on take after take as Tucker tries out a series of increasingly inspired riffs on his own dialogue. Ratner likes what he hears and, in between takes, he bounds across the set in his faded T-shirt, baggy jeans (made more so by the absence of a belt) and worn sneakers to praise Tucker and further egg him on. Only now, hours after shooting began, is the scene really starting to catch fire, and Ratner seems determined to keep at it until Tucker and Chan are in perfect comic harmony. It is, Rush Hour 3 screenwriter Jeff Nathanson will later tell me, typical of Ratnerºs approach. ÑWhat Brett does is work his crew to the point where everyone has pretty much hit the wall — where the actors, the grips, everyone is ready to call it a day,æ Nathanson says. ÑAnd thatºs when Brett is able to kick things into a whole other gear. Just when you think youºre almost out the door, thatºs when heºll go for another two hours and, in almost every case, what he gets in those two hours is what ends up in the film. He just knows, intuitively, when he hasnºt gotten that exact spark he needs. In comedy, itºs so important to have that kind of patience, to see that something can be a little bit better, or in some cases a lot better.æ ÑHe has the energy of a dozen athletes,æ adds Rush Hour series producer Arthur Sarkissian. ÑThe guy is unbelievable. He will not quit. He can be exhausted and not have slept, but on the set heºs completely there. Nothing escapes his eyes. He sees every fucking thing.æ Still, even Ratner can not roll back the clouds that have begun to obscure the afternoon sky. The cinematographer, J. Michael Muro, is worried about losing the light and has joined Ratner at the monitor, where Dudevoir repeatedly eyes his watch. One of the filmºs other producers, Andrew Z. Davis, urges Ratner to move on. Finally, the pressure builds to a head, and Ratner snaps: ÑIf Bob Shaye wants to come down here and direct Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan himself, let him do it!æ he shouts. Dudevoir cracks a smile — something that heretofore seemed impossible — and says that he actually thought Ratner was making pretty good time. Such are the stressful, workaday realities of Hollywood filmmaking as you might observe them on any number of sets, but especially on those belonging to summer tentpole movies that have the fortunes of entire studios wrapped up in them. Budgeted at an estimated $120 million — roughly four times what the original film cost to make — Rush Hour 3, which will be released on August 10, is one of the biggest investments ever undertaken by the fiscally conservative New Line, save for another highly successful in-house franchise: Peter Jacksonºs Lord of the Rings trilogy. There, the cost was special effects. Here, the stars are the special effects — namely Tucker, who now receives a $20 million payday (officially, though some reports have pegged the figure as high as $25 million) plus 20 percent of the filmºs back end, and Chan, who gets $15 million, 15 percent of the gross and distribution rights to the film in key Asian territories. (As for Ratner, fret not; heºs well taken care of too.) In addition, Rush Hour 3 stands as New Lineºs surest bet for a major hit after a long dry spell — more than two years during which none of the studioºs movies have grossed more than $60 million at the domestic box office. ÑWe have three movies this year that are really important, that have to perform, which are Hairspray, Rush Hour 3 and The Golden Compass,æ says New Line president of production Toby Emmerich. ÑSo, thereºs a lot of pressure on Rush Hour 3, though in a way, itºs the one I feel the most comfortable about because it has a three in the title. At least a lot of people have seen and liked a Rush Hour movie.æ Ultimately, the person most responsible for making sure people see and like Rush Hour 3 is the director whose seven feature films have generated more than $1 billion in global ticket sales, putting him in the elite company of Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, M. Night Shyamalan and a select few others who have reached that milestone before their 40th birthdays. The first two Rush Hours alone account for $600 million of that tally, while, in the six years since Rush Hour 2, Brett Ratner has directed popular entries in two other long-running franchises: Red Dragon (2002), the fourth film derived from Thomas Harrisº Hannibal Lecter novels, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the third and highest-grossing in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations. Barely a decade after making his feature-film debut, he has navigated a remarkable ascension of the Hollywood power list, earning the respect of such moviemaking elder statesmen as Warren Beatty (with whom Ratner developed an unproduced remake of John Cassavetesº The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) and Roman Polanski (who gives a cameo performance in Rush Hour 3) in the process. Yet if Ratner is undeniably one of the few Ñnameæ directors of his generation, his remains a name more likely to be found in the gossip columns than the culture pages. There, Ratner is routinely depicted as a poseur and a fool — a self-absorbed lothario more adept at staging parties in the basement disco of his Benedict Canyon mansion than he is at making movies. Like his contemporary, Michael Bay, he is anathema to cinephiles and other high-culture guardians. Critical reaction to Ratnerºs films usually runs the gamut from dismissive to contemptuous — so much so that, in his positive review of Red Dragon, Roger Ebert sounded almost apologetic for having liked the movie. (ÑTo my surprise,æ he wrote of Ratnerºs direction, Ñhe does a sure, stylish job.æ) At the L.A.-based gossip Web site Defamer, where Ratner can scarcely order a soft-serve yogurt without becoming headline news, he has been lumped together with the likes of Bay, Crash director Paul Haggis and rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie and branded a Ñfauxteur.æ Ratner, of course, isnºt the first commercially successful filmmaker to be denied serious artistic credibility — much the same could be said of Spielberg and Ron Howard early in their careers. Were that the case, it would be easy enough to understand, given that Ratner specializes in the kind of unapologetically populist Ñpopcornæ movies that almost never win awards or garner rave reviews. No, the curious thing about Ratner is the uniquely vicious tenor of the criticism he engenders, as if he didnºt deserve his success and the perks that come with it; as if to be seen in the same room with Paris Hilton were an unforgivable sin; as if, quite frankly, he were enjoying his life too much. ÑWhatever envy somebody is harboring — and most people are harboring at least a little bit of envy — Brett is going to bring it out of them,æ says Jay Stern, the former New Line executive who now runs Ratnerºs production company, Rat Entertainment. ÑHeºs living the dream. He has a tremendous amount of fun. He doesnºt hide the fact that he has fun. He enjoys life to the hilt, and if people arenºt enjoying life to the hilt ... envyºs going to come up for them.æ But is it merely envy that explains why, in my career as a journalist, I have never been greeted with as many expressions of skepticism, bafflement and outright disbelief from colleagues and friends as I have since first announcing I was working on this story? ÑYou want to write about him?æ they have asked, not infrequently followed by, ÑDid he really fuck Lindsay Lohan?æ All of which, I must admit, has only served to redouble my interest. Most of the time when you tell people about a filmmaker youºre profiling, all you get is a noncommittal ÑOhæ or an uncomprehending ÑWho?æ But with Ratner, everyone — especially, I find, those whoºve never met the man or even seen many of his films — has an opinion. It is a level of scrutiny, it must be said, that Ratner helps to bring upon himself. ÑThe traditional Hollywood image of the director is the quiet guy in the background whoºs the puppeteer, not the guy whoºs out there in front of everybody,æ says Davis, who has produced or executive-produced four Ratner films. ÑThatºs who Brett is. But so what?æ ÑHe seems to be almost an effervescent symbol of popular culture,æ adds director James Toback, who cast Ratner as himself in his 1999 urban drama Black and White. ÑAnd itºs as if by being someone who says, ÂThis is where we are today in popular culture,º that means youºre not taking things as seriously as you should. With Brett, the irony is that heºs smarter than the people who think that way about him.æ Which brings me to the other reason Iºve wanted to write about Ratner. It is an idea that may initially strike you as radical or preposterous, and which could jeopardize my standing in the film-criticism community. And yet, here goes: Brett Ratner is a talented filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously. Donºt get me wrong: Iºm not trying to overstate the case for Ratner by suggesting that heºs one of those innovative movie stylists whose work forever alters the face of the medium. (Heºs not — or, at least, not yet.) But neither is Ratner one of the anonymous Hollywood hacks who makes a libraryºs worth of movies without ever leaving a recognizable fingerprint. Nor is he one of the prodigiously untalented, self-serious directors — the true fauxteurs — who achieve Ñimportanceæ by pandering to the basest instincts of Oscar voters. What I am proposing is simply that Ratner excels at a kind of highly enjoyable, wholly unpretentious entertainment that isnºt nearly as easy to manufacture as it seems; that he is a singular personality; and that, unlike many Hollywood flavors-of-the-month, he is most definitely here to stay. In fact, heºs just getting started. There is a mythology about Brett Ratner that goes something like this: Scrappy Jewish kid from Miami Beach who dreams of making movies skips high school to hang out on the set of Brian De Palmaºs Scarface until he makes himself such a nuisance that De Palma casts him as an extra. That same kid later talks his way into NYU film school despite an unimpressive GPA, where, on a lark, he writes to Steven Spielberg asking for $1,000 toward the budget of a student film, and later receives a check in the mail. A chance meeting with then-nascent Def Jam Records mogul Russell Simmons gets him a gig directing hip-hop music videos; those videos just happen to premiere on MTV at the very moment the network begins adding directorsº names to the credit blocks, thus turning Ratner into one of the most sought-after video directors of the early Â90s and an avatar of hip-hopºs infiltration of mainstream pop culture. ÑHe embraced me, treated me like his little brother or his son, and he exposed me to that world,æ says Ratner of Simmons. ÑI wasnºt the white kid who was like, ÂYo, whatºs up with that?º I was doing hip-hop videos, but I wasnºt acting black. I was who I was.æ ÑThere are only a handful of guys that Iºve met in the movie world who mix interracially as though there were no such thing as race — not just who have some black friends, but who actually behave in a way when theyºre in interracial situations where there is no sense that theyºre even thinking about it,æ says Toback. ÑI always sort of secretly prided myself on feeling that this was a quality I had and that no one else Iºd met had to the same degree, but starting with the first day of shooting on Black and White, I saw that Brett has the same thing. The irony was that he was playing a guy who wanted to direct Wu-Tang Clan in a video, and in real life he already had directed them in a video!æ Ratnerºs videos — some of them can be found as extras on the DVDs of his feature films — are stylish, highly cinematic affairs, usually conceived as mininarratives rather than collages of abstract images. One, for the 1994 Heavy D track ÑNuttinº but Love,æ included an appearance by then up-and-coming comic Chris Tucker, who three years later would be cast opposite Charlie Sheen in the New Line—produced action comedy Money Talks. When the filmºs original director proved unable to cope with his starºs rampant improvising and walked off the set, it was Tucker who suggested Ratner as a replacement. Ratner was ultimately one of three directors considered for the assignment; once again, his chutzpah carried the day. ÑHe came in and, for 20 or 25 minutes straight, just pitched his heart out to say why he should be the director,æ remembers Stern, who, together with New Lineºs then president of production Michael De Luca, ended up giving Ratner the job. Released in the summer of 1997, Money Talks wasnºt a great movie, but it was funny (Ratner deems it his funniest film to date), a fine early showcase for Tucker, and a generally solid effort by an untested director thrown into the fires of a major Hollywood production just two weeks before the start of shooting. After the movie became a modest hit, Ratner turned his powers of persuasion on Stern, entreating him to leave the studio to come and work for him. At the time, Stern declined. ÑI was like, ÂIºm kind of an up-and-coming executive. Iºm not going to leave and go produce movies. You directed one movie!ºæ Four years later, when Ratner renewed the offer in the wake of Rush Hour, Stern accepted. ÑWhen he gets enthusiastic about something,æ Stern says, Ñlook out — heºs going to make it happen.æ ÑHe could sell ice to Eskimos,æ says Rush Hour 3 associate producer David Gorder, echoing the sentiments of almost everyone I talk to for this article. Itºs a trait Ratner ascribes to his mother, Marsha Presman, who taught him to be fearless in the pursuit of his goals. Described by Ratner as Ña bit of a party girl in Miamiæ — a hint that extroversion may run in the family — she was just 16 when she gave birth out of wedlock, and Ratner grew up thinking of her less as a parent than as an older sibling. His father, Ronny, a neºer-do-well rich kid who Ratner tersely calls Ña druggie, a fuckup,æ wasnºt in the picture at all; by the time they finally met, Ratner was already 16. Meanwhile, the man Ratner called ÑDadæ and credits with raising him was Alvin Malnick, a Miami lawyer and friend of Ratnerºs paternal grandfather whose clients included the gangster Meyer Lansky. As a teenager, Ratner developed a close bond with another family friend, famed music producer and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. It was Rodgers who bought him his first Super 8 movie camera and allowed him to bring it into the studio during the recording of Madonnaºs seminal Like a Virgin album in 1985. ÑMadonna was like, ÂGet this kid away from me, heºs so annoying!,ºæ Ratner remembers. A scant 14 years later, Ratner found himself directing the pop star in the video to her ÑBeautiful Strangeræ single from the Austin Powers soundtrack. Then, earlier this year, the mythology came full circle with Ratnerºs self-effacing cameo on HBOºs Entourage, in which the showºs endearingly bullheaded career bit player Johnny ÑDramaæ Chase (Kevin Dillon) convinces Ratner to cast him in Rush Hour 3 by invoking the directorºs own storied history of lucky breaks and refusing to take Ñnoæ for an answer. The kid who once had to hustle his way into film school is now the director kids go to film school trying to become. And when Ratner tells you how it all happened — as I saw him do this past May before an audience of students at the Cannes Film Festival — he does so with such beguiling, if-I-could-do-it-you-can-too modesty, that itºs not even worth asking if everything in Ratnerºs life really happened so fatefully or if certain episodes have been enhanced for dramatic effect (like that Ñchanceæ meeting with Simmons that maybe, just maybe, was carefully engineered on Ratnerºs part). Itºs a good story, and Ratner is nothing if not a born storyteller. For the record, Brett Ratner doesnºt particularly care whether you take him seriously or not. At least he says he doesnºt, and I tend to believe him. Itºs one of Ratnerºs most appealing traits, actually — a lack of pretense and a sense of comfort inside his own skin that one all too rarely encounters in a business where every comic actor wants to be taken seriously, every agent is actually a producer, indie directors hanker to try their hand on big-studio projects, and George Lucas says what he really wants to do is make small, personal art movies. ÑHe doesnºt have a consumed sense of self-importance — which I think, by comparison to other people who are similarly successful is, if not unique, at least unusual,æ says Toback. And indeed, when you talk to Ratner, you never feel that heºs putting on an act or trying to convince you heºs something that heºs not. Heºs one of those people for whom the expression Ñhigh on lifeæ seems to have been invented — which, in Ratnerºs case, may be the literal truth, given that this confessed party boy swears off alcohol and all drugs (including coffee). Can Ratner be brash? Certainly. Does he enjoy being the center of attention? Without question. Does he, during one of our meetings, receive a party invite from Paris Hilton on his iPhone? Iºd be lying if I said otherwise. But heºs the first to poke fun at himself, and the last thing he seems interested in is wasting any time countering his detractors. ÑThe answer could be, ÂTheyºre all jealous,º or, ÂTheyºre all envious,º or, ÂThey donºt really get me,ºæ says Ratner. ÑPeople criticize movies that are in the pop culture, but thatºs who I am. The thing about the Defamer guy is that heºd be much worse if I let it bother me, if I called him up and said, ÂIf you write one more thing about me ...  I simply donºt care.æ What does matter to Ratner is that his films seem expressive of his personality. ÑThe directors I admire, like the Coen brothers and Scorsese — theyºre in their films,æ he says. So too is Ratner in his, for anyone who wants to find him. Perhaps not so much in X-Men: The Last Stand, the noisiest and least necessary in a series whose popularity has eluded me since Day One. But Ratner is everywhere in Money Talks, in the underrated caper picture After the Sunset, and (perhaps most of all) in the Rush Hour movies. Heºs there in the preponderance of classic R&B and hip-hop on their soundtracks; in their exuberant celebrations of beautiful women, fast cars and other assorted bling; and in their conscious homages to the movies that made Ratner want to become a director in the first place.Like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, heºs an unrepentant Â70s nostalgia junkie who cites the late Hal Ashby as his favorite filmmaker and who — against the wishes of the studio — hired film composer Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon) to work on Money Talks and four of his subsequent features. But Ratnerºs style is equally informed by the iconic action comedies of the 1980s — movies like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run that Ratner saw in the company of his maternal grandfather, a Cuban-born Jew whose broken English made him an ideal spectator for stories primarily told through visual means. As much as anything he would eventually learn at NYU, those films gave Ratner his appreciation for snappy comic banter and clean, concise action executed with a minimum of editing, camera movement and visual effects. Today, itºs that old-school approach that distinguishes Ratnerºs movies from those of Bay, McG and the other prominent music-video alumni whose attention-deficient aesthetics have become the common denominator of the 21st-century blockbuster. ÑIn an action movie, I donºt want to move the camera too much, because the movement should be within the frame,æ Ratner says. ÑThe same goes for comedy: You donºt want to push in for a joke; itºs plenty in a medium shot. Watch my jokes; theyºre never in close-up. If the audience feels the camera, itºs horrible.æ A week after my initial visit, the Rush Hour 3 shoot has relocated to Stage 16 of the Culver Studios, where production designer Ed Verreauxºs elaborate replica of the Jules Verne restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower is strewn with broken chairs, tableware and other evidence of the climactic fight sequence that takes place here. Parts of the scene were already shot at the actual location, where limited access and Franceºs restrictive 35-hour work week greatly hampered progress. Today, the movieºs Asian villainess, played by Japanese actress Youki Kudoh (Memoirs of a Geisha), is standing on a beam outside the restaurantºs windows, framed against a cycloramic backdrop of the Paris cityscape. In her hands, she holds a rope that suspends the Chinese actress Jingchu Zhang, who is making her American acting debut as Rush Hour 3ºs kidnapped damsel-in-distress — a grown-up version of the Chinese ambassadorºs daughter whose kidnapping set the first Rush Hour in motion. Ratner has good notes for Kudoh, who keeps missing her mark at a key moment in the scene. When she gets it right, he gives her a big hug. As the crew prepares the next setup, Ratner tells me that, not unlike the James Bond movies, the Rush Hour series is governed by certain inviolable mandates. One of them, as with Bond, is Ña hot girl as a villain and a hot girl as an ally.æ Another is location, location, location. ÑBecause these are fish-out-of-water comedies, you need to be in a place where the language is not the [charactersº] first language,æ he says. ÑIn the first Rush Hour, Jackie came to L.A. and he was the fish-out-of-water. In the second one, Chris went to Hong Kong. This time, where was the best opportunity for comedy? We could have gone to Moscow — that might have worked.æ But France, says Ratner, with its historically knotty love-hate relationship with America: ÑThat was the perfect place for comedy.æ If the Rush Hour series now feels like a well-oiled machine, however, its path to the big screen was one of those chronologies of false starts, radical overhauls and bruised egos more commonly known as a season in development hell. In fact, when writer Ross LaMannaºs spec script for Rush Hour first came across the desk of producer Arthur Sarkissian, it wasnºt a comedy at all, but rather a high-concept action thriller (with overtones of Speed) about a Chinese cop and an American FBI agent (of unspecified ethnicity) searching for a WMD that is being transported through L.A. traffic during — you guessed it — the worst rush hour of the year. Sarkissian attached himself as a producer and took the script to Disney, where production executive Mike Stenson was looking for a project that could potentially pair Jackie Chan with an American star. So Stenson bought Rush Hour, commissioned a major rewrite by Stakeout screenwriter Jim Kouf and began to envision a buddy action-comedy starring Chan and . . . Martin Lawrence. After all that, Disney put the project into turnaround, sparking a bidding war among rival studios and legal actions between Sarkissian and another producer. It was only when Rush Hour landed at New Line — the one company willing to greenlight the movie, no questions asked — that Ratner took the reins. It was Ratner, everyone agrees, who replaced Martin Lawrence with Chris Tucker and brought in a relatively unknown screenwriter named Jeff Nathanson (who would go on to write Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal and the fourth Indiana Jones movie for Steven Spielberg) to punch up the script. And it was Ratner, crucially, who flew halfway around the world to persuade the skeptical Chan — who had effectively sworn off American moviemaking after a few disastrous experiences in the 1980s — to give Hollywood another try. A week later, Ratner had his answer: Chan would make the film. In her 1969 essay ÑTrash, Art, and the Movies,æ Pauline Kael wrote that ÑThere is so much talk now about the art of film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art,æ and surely the two Rush Hour movies are easily enough dismissed if youºre the sort of filmgoer looking for art with a capital ÑA.æ Theyºre airy and light and completely insubstantial, but theyºre also whirligigs of deft action and precision comic timing, and they use Chan — the most physically gifted screen comedian of the sound era — better than any movie he has made in America before or since. That is, in no small measure, because Ratner — a childhood martial arts enthusiast — allowed Chan to choreograph the fight sequences in the actorºs patented Hong Kong style (where pillows, tablecloths and other practical objects become makeshift weapons). The director did have a few basic ground rules, though. ÑOur collaboration is interesting,æ says Ratner, Ñbecause Jackie is a genius, but if you let him, heºll design a 30-minute fight scene and it will go on and on and on. My job is to make sure that whatever he does, itºs helping to drive the story forward.æ ÑIn Hollywood, they care more about comedy, relationship and so many things before action stunts,æ concurs Chan. ÑIn Hong Kong, we go straight into stunts and action, but in America sometimes thatºs too much. So, now Iºm making a film half and half — take some good things from Hollywood and some good things from Asia.æ The end results are the kind of nearly perfect buddy movies often attempted but rarely achieved (for sterling counter-examples, see Nothing to Lose, Blue Streak, Showtime and any Lethal Weapon picture with a number higher than 2 — or, on second thought, donºt). When Ratner tells you that, among the congratulatory messages he received in the wake of the first Rush Hourºs release, one came from Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme (who cut his teeth on similarly industrious genre fare back at the Roger Corman factory), itºs hardly a surprise. And what of Rush Hour 3? Iºm happy to report that it is everything one could hope a movie with that title would be. Itºs fast and funny, with several superb action set-pieces (including a breakneck car chase down the Champs-Elysees, and the Eiffel Tower finale) and a scene-stealing performance by French actor Yvan Attal as a sad-sack cabbie with daydreams of becoming an American action-movie hero. In a summer movie season rife with Ñ3æs (and one big, bloated Ñ13æ), it has no numeric equal. Best of all, at a time when a trip to the local multiplex increasingly results in a long dayºs journey into night, Rush Hour 3 has the good sense to get on and off the screen in just over 90 minutes. Thatºs another Ratner-issued mandate, in fact — even if it means that certain entire scenes (including, as it happens, the one at the Paris—Le Bourget airport) end up on the cutting-room floor.ÑSitting through all these movies this summer, Iºm like ÂFuck! What is going on? Why are they so long?,æ Ratner tells me during a break from the Rush Hour 3 sound mix, a few days after I attend a rough-cut screening. ÑThese scenes can end up on the DVD. Why put them in the movie?æ He prefers, he says, for his audiences to exit the theater with smiles on their faces rather than pained looks of weariness and exhaustion. ÑLeave the audience wanting more, you know?æ This is the first time Ratner and I have sat down to talk at length, away from the hubbub of the set. Weºre supposed to have a couple of hours, but after 30 minutes heºs called back to the mixing stage. So I go with him, and throughout the night and into the wee morning hours, I watch as Ratner — flanked by his sound mixers, Davis, Sarkissian, Stern and Rush Hour 3 editor Mark Helfrich — raises and lowers music levels by as little as one half of a decibel, insists on changes to the timbre of gunshots, and identifies split-second moments at which the movieºs soundtrack slips out of sync. Itºs an object lesson for anyone who thinks Ratner is less than a deeply committed, dedicated movie craftsman with a sharp eye for detail. Whenever he can, Ratner ducks out for a few minutes and we resume our conversation. Of his widespread image as a social butterfly, Ratner says itºs something that gives him pleasure but which he also views as a professional responsibility: ÑIf I start staying at my house and never leaving, Iºm going to lose touch. Iºm at the center of pop culture right now not because I have some big secret — Iºm just out there. Iºm interacting with people, and I know how people are thinking — whether itºs Lindsay Lohan or whoever. It doesnºt matter if you respect these people or not: Theyºre are part of pop culture, which is youth culture. Iºm not doing it strategically. I happen to love it.æ Of the recent addition of Democratic Party booster to his r»sum», he says heºs merely trying to set a philanthropic example for others to follow. ÑItºs not about Hillary, or Obama or Edwards,æ he says. ÑI just want a Democratic president.æ Finally, I ask Ratner the question that has been hovering awkwardly in the air ever since we first met — on the topic that earns him the most grief from the media and which seems to blind some people from seeing him in more than one dimension: I ask the man who has dated, among others, actress Rebecca Gayheart, tennis pro Serena Williams and (most recently) Romanian supermodel Alina Puscau about the women in his life. ÑI like women,æ he says sheepishly, as if the world didnºt already know. Then he elaborates: ÑEither you have a thing for women or you donºt, because my grandfather has been with my grandmother for 60 years and heºs never even looked at another woman. Heºs not interested. Heºs happier with one woman. Iºm a different person. Iºm a kid in a candy store.æ ÑThere are certain people who can get away with a reputation for flirtation and running around — the paradigm being George Clooney,æ says Toback, whose own reputation as a man about town was once satirized in an infamous Spy magazine article. ÑBut very few directors can get away with that, and most of them are cagey enough to conceal what theyºre really doing. I think that just to enjoy a single life as Brett does is a serious detriment to being taken seriously. Itºs as if to be sexually curious and freewheeling implies some form of retardation instead of some form of advanced or enlightened consciousness, which is what it just as often is.æ Enlightened consciousness or not, Ratner says he was probably most successful with the fairer sex before he himself was a success, Ñback when I was a skinny teenager, when I was cute.æ Now, he says, ÑThings are more strategic. Iºm not Warren Beatty, obviously, where Iºm the good-looking gorgeous guy and success doesnºt matter. With me, itºs not like, ÂOh, look at him, I want to fuck him.º Itºs more like, ÂWhoºs that fat Jewish guy trying to talk to me?ºæ So Ratner relies on his sense of humor, his gift of gab and a natural ease in social situations that many more conventionally good-looking people lack. ÑThe whole idea of physical attractiveness in relation to sexual fulfillment is, while obvious, also overestimated,æ says Toback. ÑWhatºs appealing about people is quite often mysterious, physically and otherwise. Brettºs not someone who wishes that he looked like someone else, which can be very unappetizing. I call it the toupee syndrome: Who exactly is supposed to believe that thatºs your real hair?æ Back on the mixing stage, the end credits of Rush Hour 3 are finally beginning to roll, accompanied by an original song in which Gnarls Barkleyºs Cee-Lo raps to the beat of Lalo Schifrinºs brassy orchestral score. Thereºs still some fine-tuning to be done, but at this point everyone — even the indefatigable Ratner — is dead on their feet. Theyºll reconvene in the morning, after which Ratner will set off with Tucker on a multicity promotional tour. And after that, there will be another movie — possibly a Hugh Hefner bio-pic, possibly a heist comedy teaming Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, or, who knows, maybe a Rush Hour 4. In the meantime, Ratnerºs public image seems poised for a bit of rehabilitation, thanks to a flattering recent Vanity Fair profile and a special issue of Variety, headlined ÑBillion Dollar Director.æ But Bob Shaye, who says he and Ratner are once again on fine terms, warns the director about putting too much stock in what he reads in the papers. ÑI think thereºs a very dangerous mindset that invades a lot of people who are successful, whether itºs hubris or, as a psychiatrist friend of mine has characterized it, Âacquired situational narcissism,ºæ says Shaye. ÑAs one of his mentors, Iºve cautioned Brett a lot about believing his own press — be it praiseful or critical. In both cases, you have to remember . . . let me give you a metaphor: In ancient Rome, when a General came back from winning a great campaign and walked down the red carpet to meet Ceasar, and thousands of people were standing along the border screaming and shouting and bands were playing, there was someone whose job it was to walk next to the General and whisper in his ear, ÂYouºre only a man, youºre only a man.º Brett is only a young man at the end of the day, and he will mature, I think and I expect, with great humility.æ As Ratner and I walk to his car — no screaming minions, no brass band — he tells me that he feels like heºs lived a blessed and happy life, and that thinking about it gives him a touch of anxiety, as if he were waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for his carriage to turn back into a pumpkin. ÑAll I ever dreamed about was being a director,æ Ratner says. ÑAnd now Iºll see people I havenºt seen for 20 years and theyºll be like, ÂYou told me you were going to be a movie director when you were a kid.º The only thing I regret ...æ His voice trails off, and then Ratner starts talking about The Family Man, his 2000 romantic fantasy about a successful New York investment banker and ladies man (played by Nicolas Cage) who is offered a momentary glimpse of a parallel life in which he has less material wealth, but is happily married to his high school sweetheart and is the father of two young children. (It was, as usual with Ratner, a popular hit and a critical turkey.) At the time he was making the film, Ratner says, he was in the process of breaking up with Gayheart, whom heºd dated since film school, who supported him in the early days of his career, and to whom he was once engaged. Then he gets back to what heºd started to tell me before, about the one thing he regrets in his life — or not even that he regrets, but about which he wishes. Like Cageºs character in the film, heºd love to get a glimpse of what things would have been like if heºd stayed with Gayheart and had kids who, theoretically, could have been teenagers by now. Itºs then that I realize why Ratner tells people that The Family Man is his most personal film. I also realize that, even after the four months Iºve spent drifting in and out of his orbit, Ratner remains to me a bevy of contradictions — the critically lambasted moviemaker who has passed on ostensibly more prestigious projects (including Memoirs of a Geisha and Oceanºs Eleven), the alleged narcissist who says heºd do anything for his friends and who recently moved his grandparents into his guest house, and the tabloid playboy who may be a closeted monogamist. Is he a cad or a mensch? The worldºs heavyweight box-office champion or a future Oscar winner? Is he all of those things at once or none of them at all? Or is Brett Ratner, like so many of the rest of us, still figuring out just exactly who he is?ÑAm I Orson Welles?æ he asks. ÑObviously not. But 50 years from now, who knows how, as a person, Iºll have grown. Iºve already changed, from being a 26-year-old kid to a 38-year-old guy — Iºm not a man yet, really. But as I get older, who knows how my experiences and my knowledge, this past 12 years making movies, how thatºs all going to affect the movies that I make? I know that the life I lived from 16 to 26 allowed me to make a movie like Rush Hour, so now letºs see ...æWho/what: Brett Ratner|Jackie Chan|Chris Tucker|New Line Cinema cutlines: for brettratner1: Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner and star Chris Tucker look over co-star Roman Polanski's past with the man himself (right). for the other photo: Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan do their thing. Again.
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