Do You Understand The Words That Are Coming Out Of My Mouth: Rush Hour (1998)

It might be easy to declare Rush Hour the biggest stretch in the entirety of my kung fu marathon in that it declares itself rather openly to be an action film and has cemented itself as one of the contemporary classics in the field of buddy cop flicks.  However, it does include Jackie Chan as one of it its stars, there is a good bit of fighting throughout and it is so heavily drawing from the Hong Kong action cinema of the decade, which, in turn, draws upon kung fu films that it is almost possible to argue that this is the most obvious inclusion for the marathon.  I am sure prior to watching this film last night that I had seen Rush Hour in its entirety, but it would easily have been fifteen years ago at this point, when it was originally released so any sort of memories I had from the film had, undoubtedly, been influenced by its references in popular culture.  The most obvious of these being the line that I used in the title of this post.  Given that I am wildly critical about every piece of film I consume these days, including the lowest of art, I went into Rush Hour assuming that it would be particularly offensive in the way it portrays Asian, particularly Chinese, culture, exploiting it for its most basic elements and appropriating them to create a narrative deemed producer friendly.  Much to my surprise, Rush Hour manages to take its Chinese presence very seriously, using locations in Chinatown as they turly exist, as opposed to creating simulacra of the spaces to make them, again, more producer friendly.  Praising this element of the film does not mean that it is a work void of problems.  Where the narrative takes careful trides to avoid stereotypical imagery of Chinese people, it manages to undermine the notion of racial performance by writing Chris Tucker's character as an over-performance of the stereotypes of African-American masculinity, only to have Tucker play into these depictions through many of his acting choices.  This is, easily the most frustrating element of the film, but it does not run throughout, making particular moments of the movie exude excellent action choreography and relatively watchable cinematography for a late-nineties action flick.

Rush Hour begins in a Hong Kong setting, focusing on the skills of Chinese Special Investigator Lee (Jackie Chan), whose persistence and dedication to his job has stifled the criminal activities of infamous syndicate Sang (Ken Leung).  His job earns him the gratitude of China's consulate to the United States Han (Tzi Ma).  This respect, affords, him a chance to come to America when Han's daughter is kidnapped by Sang and his lackeys for ransom.  Meanwhile, Carter (Chris Tucker) is an undercover cop with the LAPD, whose reputation for wild field choices and general garrulous behavior lead to him being threatened with suspension if he does not get his act together.  When the FBI is placed on the case to find and save Han's daughter they are hesitant to involve Lee in their investigation, assuming he will be dead weight.  Upon his arrival, a frustrated LAPD chief assigns Carter to be the aid to Lee, taking him around Chinatown and distracting him from actually becoming involved in the investigation.  Feigning a lack of English skills, Lee quickly realizes that Carter is tricking him and escapes, arriving at the FBI safe point hoping to speak directly with Han.  After fighting off guards who assume he is one of Sang's men, it is revealed that the FBI had attempted to distract Lee, as well as Carter, to the frustration of both, as well as Han who feels betrayed by the FBI.  Still, the FBI assures Han that it is in his best interests to allow only their organization to handle the case.  Yet, when Carter and Lee realize they posses far more information about the case than anyone at the FBI they take it upon themselves to hunt down the persons involved in the kidnapping, eventually recruiting the help of another officer on the LAPD force Johnson (Elizabeth Pena).  After a failed attempt to rescue Han's daughter at the hideout of Sang and his men, the threats on the girl rise, as does the ransom demand, culminating at a huge Chinese art exhibit, where it is discovered that Han's daughter is hidden in a van with a vest of C4 strapped to her chest.  Furthermore, it is realized that the person funding the entire kidnapping ordeal was much closer to Han than any person could have imagined.  Nonetheless, Carter and Lee are successful, earning Lee a spot on his countries secret service.  Carter is begrudgingly offered a place on the FBI, to which he refuses, choosing, instead; to travel with Lee to China.

I want to get out the racial performance element before talking about one of the more positive aspects of this film.  There is a ton of dialogue which is delivered by Tucker that requires him to heighten his voice and play into a shucking and shuffling that would be more indicative of a minstrel show of years gone by, which, while not a sole occurrence in Hollywood at the time, nor in contemporary films, when it does emerge it is a particular point of frustration, because it is played for comedy and often consumed by audiences of multiple races.  Indeed, Spike Lee's incisive and scathing consideration of the African-American male body in entertainment that was Bamboozled dealt with this issue to its most extreme form, with the intent of noting that while it may not appear in the extremes of new age blackface the performance element was still present.  It is films like Rush Hour that Lee is clearly considering.  In an extension beyond the hyper critical in a negative, I want to critically approach the film for its use of language as a metaphor for learning friendship and bonding.  Both Lee and Carter are initially hesitant to embrace one another because of clear stereotypes they have about one another's cultures that extend beyond not only their nation, but race as well.  Indeed, they both assume a degree of a language barrier, wherein, Carter assumes that Lee cannot speak any English and takes it upon himself to yell repeatedly in hopes that some sort of rage will get Lee to understand.  Carter still entrenched in his single-minded attitude cannot fathom the possibility of learning a language to speak to Lee who he neither respects or admires.  It is, indeed, Lee who makes the first step toward a friendship by revealing his ability to speak decent English, a fact that causes Carter to begin losing his hermit shell and opening up to Lee as a friend and partner.  Interestingly it is when they realize that language affords them a shared experience through stories of their fathers that the two really seem to bond, other cultural elements such as music and food help, but not to the degree that this interaction does, pushing Carter from a space where he would ignore the safety of his partner for self-advancement, to sacrificing his body and safety for the survival of Lee.  This comes full circle in the final moments of the film, when Carter himself speaks Chinese, showing his willingness to fully embrace Lee as a friend.

Key Scene:  While there are some great moments in this film, it possesses what might be the best of the credits blooper reals, adding a surprising layer to the language reading in the film.

You have likely seen this film, in which case it is not really worth revisiting, however, it is a cultural staple and catching up with it, despite its problems, helps make one more versed in the beast that is a "popular" collective memory.

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