Film and TV

The Popcorn King

It's 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 film's 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, "You will always be my nigga." But Ratner thinks Chan's enunciation is causing "nigga" to sound too much like a certain undesirable expletive. Tucker could live without the line altogether, no matter that it's an intentional echo of a signature Chan line — "What's up, my nigga?" — from the first Rush Hour film in 1998.

"You've got this great movie and you're gonna end it with this racist word," Tucker chides Ratner only half jokingly, before warning Chan: "Every black person in America is going to hate you."

"You've been spending too much time with Oprah," Ratner fires back in reference to Tucker's 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.

"Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" 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 — "No" — that lent both Rush Hour and its 2001 sequel (which deposited Tucker's 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 hadn't 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, "Who do they think they kidnapped, Chelsea Clinton?" 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, Chan's English remains spotty. His dialogue coach, Diana Weng, is present at all times, holding a clipboard just off-camera on which Chan's lines are written out in large block letters. Still, Tucker's 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 production's overages at Ratner's feet, even going so far as to call it "a betrayal of the trust New Line has put into him." (Ratner responded by calling Shaye penny wise and pound foolish.) But when I show up, Ratner seems largely unfazed, despite the presence of New Line's 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, Chan's line has been changed. "You will always be my homie," 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 Ratner's approach.

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Scott Foundas
Contact: Scott Foundas