The ongoing attempt to establish Jackie Chan in America reveals, more than anything, how unbending and narrow the English-language commercial market really is these days.
Although Chan is a world superstar by any reckoning, the Hollywood machine is having problems accommodating his persona and style.
So what is the solution? After a string of Chan movies partly tailored for American release (such as the splendid Rumble in the Bronx, 1996), someone had the bright idea to make him one half of a cop-buddy team. The other half is, of course, all-American: Chris Tucker (Money Talks, 1997), a black comedian notable mainly for his rapid-fire, high-pitch delivery and a tendency to break into funky dance moves whenever possible.
For Chan fans this combo is puzzling, even a bit demeaning. The filmmakers themselves seem a little nervous about it, since it takes a long time before Tucker and Chan get together and start negotiating their differences of manner, language and musical taste.
It's fun to watch these two well-dressed cops shuffle down the street singing the pop classic "War" while freezing in martial arts postures – but it's not exactly exciting.
Naturally, there is a plot pretext for all this jiving around. In America, the Chinese Consul's little daughter Soo Yung (Julia Hsu) is kidnapped by a blonde, punkish villain, Sang (Ken Leung). Lee (Chan) arrives to work on the case, but the FBI scheme to keep him out of their way by assigning the flaky Carter (Tucker) as a minder. Carter is miffed and Lee is frustrated by this situation, so they decide to go after the girl themselves.
The potpourri of action and comedy works surprisingly well in places – even though side roles such as Elizabeth Peña as a tough cop are thoroughly wasted. Chan is among the handsomest men in movies today, as well as a superb clown. In Rush Hour, he is no longer performing the death-defying leaps that made him famous in Hong Kong action films. His moves are smaller and less spectacular, if no less dexterous, and are mostly designed to make us laugh rather than gasp.
Nonetheless, a set-piece in which Jackie attempts to hold up a priceless Chinese urn while doing battle with numerous thugs is worthy of Jerry Lewis' The Ladies' Man (1961). And those with a keen interest in the cultural politics of Chan's uneasy assimilation into the American mainstream will especially appreciate the revenge he enjoys in the final montage of out-takes – where it is revealed that, while Jackie works hard to master his reams of English dialogue, Tucker can barely memorise three words of Chinese.
© Adrian Martin January 1999