Retro Control: ‘Rush Hour’
Groundbreaking Buddy Cop Film Celebrates its 20th Anniversary
What’s Retro Control? Well, it’s a sentimental look at cinema of the past and its influence today. A nostalgia trip that dives deep into a film genre and identity. We need to explore the past in order to understand our future.
Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the film Rush Hour, a seminal film in the buddy cop genre. A genre that is as diverse as its characters, and one of the most progressive in cinema history, allowing characters of different backgrounds and ideologies to work together towards a similar goal.
There are a few typical pairings when it comes to buddy cop projects. You have pairings of similar race, as seen in Bad Boys, Hot Fuzz, and The Other Guys. Then, you have pairings of different races and usually with someone that is Caucasian, like in 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, and Men in Black. The first set of pairings showcases a similar power dynamic where the second highlights racial prejudice. Most buddy cop projects always have someone who is in control and someone who follows. Generally that’s fine, however, when a character of a certain race is paired with a White partner, there is a bias that the White counterpart has the higher power. Sometimes this is obvious, as with Nick Nolte’s Jack in 48 Hrs. who uses racial slurs to belittle and demean his partner Reggie (played by Eddie Murphy). Sometimes it’s a bit more subtle, as with Tommy Lee Jones’s Kay being the MIB insider and teacher, and Will Smith’s Jay being the “ghetto” outsider.
The only buddy cop films that stray from this formula are Turner and Hootch where Tom Hanks is paired with a dog, and Rush Hour, which features an Asian and an African-American team up.
Directed by Brett Ratner and starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, Rush Hour is a movie that defies the typical Hollywood buddy cop blockbuster. This is because its the only film of the genre to pair an Asian and African-American as cop partners, making them racial equals. The film’s plot centers around a kidnapping—Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) is tasked with returning Soo Yung, the daughter of the Chinese Consul, to her father. Lee is the best person for this job since he has the most experience dealing with the Juntao crime syndicate. However, he is unfamiliar with the United States, and is therefore paired with Los Angeles Police Department officer James Carter (Chris Tucker) to reunite the family and take down Juntao.
Neither cop want in on this partnership because they work best alone, which is why the FBI forced them to work together, so they would be preoccupied with infighting and distracted from the investigation. This backfires as the pair slowly solve their differences and get on the same page; they even realize they are closer than they appear. During the film’s second act, after Lee and Carter are removed from the investigation and with Lee headed back to Hong Kong, Carter finally tires to connect with his partner. He meets Lee on his plane and tries to sympathize with him. Shortly after, they both realize that they each joined the police force because their fathers were officers. This reignites their passion for crime solving, and the two decide to team up again to finish the job and get justice.
Chan and Tucker are the perfect buddy cop pairing because like many other films in the genre, the two are complete opposites. Chan plays the law-abiding cop paired with Tucker who is a loose cannon. Furthermore, Chan uses his physicality and stunts to get out of perilous situations, whereas Tucker talks his way out of them.
There are some impressive stunts in the film, including Jackie’s use of parkour and wall climbing. During the film’s climax in the Los Angeles Convention Center, Jackie fights his foes while protecting the Chinese art on display. A hilarious moment occurs when after trying to protect an ancient Chinese vase from being destroyed, it’s shot to pieces just as Jackie takes a moment to breath. Jackie is an expert when it comes to moments like this—a true skilled professional in playing off of audience expectations. He is skilled in comedy and physicality, and I recommend watching the “Every Frame a Painting” video below if you like to learn more:
Just like many other Jackie Chan projects, Rush Hour ends in gags and outtakes; you’ll see Jackie and Tucker messing up stunts or flubbing lines. This is something that’s extremely popular today with the countless credit stingers and ties to future film projects.
The film is revolutionary in its character portrayals as well. Where many films of the era cast minorities in the roles of the villain, Chan and Tucker are the protagonists (something that Hollywood has been pushing for recently in their desire to reach as large of an audience as possible). Also, Soo Yung, who is supposed to be the “damsel in distress” and an underdeveloped and underpowered little girl, is instead a martial arts student of Lee who constantly fights against her kidnappers rather than accepting being taken hostage.
Rush Hour is the perfect blend of Asian and African-American cultures. The movie’s backdrop is Los Angeles where the culture is ethnically diverse. One moment your in the city’s underbelly, then in the artist district, then in Chinatown—all backgrounds are represented in the film. Nonetheless, the primary goal is to bridge Black culture and the culture of the East.
Martial arts films have been assimilated into Black culture ever since Bruce Lee portrayed Kato in the 1960s Green Hornet television show. In fact, Bruce Lee is the ICON for martial arts in African-American culture. His films greatly influenced the films of the early ’70s as both genres, Kung Fu films and Blaxploitation cinema, were revenge fantasies fighting against a higher power. The Bruce Lee film, Enter the Dragon, features Jim Kelly as an African-American martial artist, and Lee’s last film, Game of Death, includes NBA hall of fame inductee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Moreover, Rush Hour is the first buddy cop film to feature Kung Fu and martial arts as a characteristic. It even pays homage to Bruce Lee by having Jackie Chan play a character whose name is “Lee.” The jokes in the film do play off of racial differences, but they are not distasteful. Rather, the jokes further emphasize the differences between the two as seen in the quote below:
“Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” – Detective Carter
The joke works because it’s not about Chan being a foreigner, but instead it’s a joke about miscommunication.
Rush Hour is an outlier film in the buddy cop genre that is underappreciated. It is the perfect blend of Asian and African-American cultures that was revolutionary for its time. Jackie Chan has stated that without the film, Rush Hour, Hollywood would never have taken him seriously as an actor or director. The film was in the top ten highest-grossing of 1998, and its success lead to two sequels, Rush Hour 2 (2001) and Rush Hour 3 (2007). A fourth film is currently in development and said to be released next year. I honestly can’t wait to see what that project brings to the table.