The Popcorn King

Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner has been called a fauxteur, a womanizer and, worse, over budget. Why you should take him seriously anyway.

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 LaManna's spec script for Rush Hour first came across the desk of producer Arthur Sarkissian, it wasn't 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 "Trash, Art, and the Movies," Pauline Kael wrote that "There 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," and surely the two Rush Hour movies are easily enough dismissed if you're the sort of filmgoer looking for art with a capital "A." They're airy and light and completely insubstantial, but they're 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 actor's patented Hong Kong style (where pillows, tablecloths and other practical objects become makeshift weapons). The director did have a few basic ground rules, though.

"Our collaboration is interesting," says Ratner, "because Jackie is a genius, but if you let him, he'll 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, it's helping to drive the story forward."

"In Hollywood, they care more about comedy, relationship and so many things before action stunts," concurs Chan. "In Hong Kong, we go straight into stunts and action, but in America sometimes that's too much. So, now I'm making a film half and half — take some good things from Hollywood and some good things from Asia."

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, don't). When Ratner tells you that, among the congratulatory messages he received in the wake of the first Rush Hour's 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), it's hardly a surprise.

And what of Rush Hour 3? I'm happy to report that it is everything one could hope a movie with that title would be. It's 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 "3"s (and one big, bloated "13"), it has no numeric equal. Best of all, at a time when a trip to the local multiplex increasingly results in a long day's journey into night, Rush Hour 3 has the good sense to get on and off the screen in just over 90 minutes. That's 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.

"Sitting through all these movies this summer, I'm like 'Fuck! What is going on? Why are they so long?," Ratner tells me during a break from the Rush Hour 3 sound mix, a few days after I attend a rough-cut screening. "These scenes can end up on the DVD. Why put them in the movie?" He prefers, he says, for his audiences to exit the theater with smiles on their faces rather than pained looks of weariness and exhaustion. "Leave the audience wanting more, you know?"

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