The Twenty-Five Million Dollar Man on working with a master director...and Brett Ratner
August 12, 2007|Two interview offers recently found their way to my inbox: one with the cast of the Bratz movie, the other with Rush Hour 3 co-conspirators Chris Tucker and Brett Ratner. Though I do wonder how the toy-line movie interview would have gone, the choice was obvious: Ratner's films certainly inspire plenty of witty rhetoric 'round the pages of FILM FREAK CENTRAL (as far as critical tidbits go, the opening line of Walter's X-Men: The Last Stand review stands as a personal favourite), and I welcomed the opportunity to sit down and talk to the man about the accusations that dog him in these parts. As for my own personal experience with Ratner's movies, it ranged from hazily-positive recollections of a theatrical viewing of Red Dragon to an astoundingly negative reaction to X-Men: The Last Stand. It was time to get educated, once and for all.
So, with the aid of a nearby two-day video rental joint, I plow through most of Ratner's films within a week. It's a rollercoaster, all right, to discover the oversaturated titillation and homophobia of the juvenile After the Sunset, the emotional non sequiturs of The Family Man, and the enduring suckiness of X3. As it happens, the two movies that act as required viewing for the film I am assigned to see also serve as perfect distillations of the rest of the director's filmography, with Rush Hour perhaps best described as "aggressively mediocre" and Rush Hour 2 registering as "awkwardly racist."
I am warned ahead of time that the version of Rush Hour 3 I'll be shown is far from releasable, but I'm not terribly sure what specifically qualifies it as a workprint. Certainly a timecode runs at the bottom of the screen throughout, but it's cobbled-together enough to sport a coherent narrative and the familiar closing-credit outtakes. It's difficult, then, to differentiate between "work-in-progress"-isms and plain incompetence. (A few CGI battles atop the Eiffel Tower look a little rough around the edges, and the ending is surprisingly abrupt, even by Ratner's standards.) Regardless of where the film was at that stage of the game, a busy schedule precludes a proper screening of the finished product and a formal review. What I can tell you for sure is that, out of this summer's sea of continuations and remakes, Rush Hour 3 best represents the concept of a sequel delivering the same old shit. A lazy retread of a lot of the scenarios and gags from nearly a decade ago, it's a practical remake of the original Rush Hour, only with former European wunderkinds (Max von Sydow and Roman Polanski!) supplanting characters who've died in the interim--and with Jackie Chan sporting a noticeably slower step that betrays his advanced age.
Then there's Chris Tucker, who's louder and more obnoxious than ever before: hating on women, hating on Asians, hating on the French, hating on gays, hating on freakin' everybody. It's easy to pinpoint Tucker as the fount of hostility in the Rush Hour series, since it's from his loquacious mouth that we hear anti-Asian sentiments like "You all look alike" and "Get your sweet and sour pork ass down!" And yet, armed with my newfound knowledge of Brett Ratner (i.e., the fact that each of his films features at least one such hateful outburst), I begin to wonder how much "responsibility," per se, can be levelled against an actor, the likely avatar for the director. (This is of particular interest in Tucker's case, given that he has appeared in few other films.) Unfortunately, I will not be able to hear how both sides feel about this, as I learn two days before the interview is scheduled that Ratner will not be doing the Philadelphia leg of his movie's press tour. He is, apparently, still in Los Angeles finishing the movie.
To further compound frustrations, acquainting oneself with Tucker's filmography beyond the Rush Hour franchise, such as it is, proves to be a greater challenge than was holding an impromptu Ratnerthon: The Fifth Element and Jackie Brown are MIA from the various video stores I visit, while YouTube clips of Tucker's stand-up act are fragmented and insubstantial; his never-realized film project, Mr. President, meanwhile seems to have been self-evidently swallowed up by the existence of the similarly-plotted Chris Rock vehicle Head of State.
Regardless, a deeper probing into Tucker's career probably wouldn't prepare you for the first thing you notice about him in person: that he's not screaming at you. Indeed, he's quiet, reserved, friendly--the polar opposite of his screen persona. He's so unassuming that he practically disappears next to a loud red cardboard Rush Hour 3 standee planted unceremoniously in an empty seat. His manner suggests some discomfort with the whole interview process, his answers generally arriving in the form of short, two-sentence bursts; the closest he ever comes to breaking out of his shell and cracking jokes is when the topic shifts to his trilogy-long partnership with Jackie Chan. If in the end we were never quite on the same wavelength of thought, there was no mistaking that he's a pensive man looking for a good conversation and eager to know what you think of his work.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Rush Hour 3 is more of a direct continuation of the original Rush Hour. Nine years after the fact, how do you return to these characters and situations?
CHRIS TUCKER: It's such a great set-up, and I think that's important when you pick a movie--the situation. The situation is a funny situation, y'know, two guys coming from two different worlds. A black guy, a Chinese guy--it's so funny that you can just go on and on and on. It's like a great TV series or something. The first movie, we met, we were just being introduced to each other, so the whole movie was about two different guys--strangers, almost; second movie, we were getting to know each other a little bit better, so I went to Hong Kong to get to know him a little better. This movie, we're like, partners, so it's like--you've never seen this before. We're buddies, we're teaming up, we're going somewhere together, we're both fish out of water. So it just gives us a greater opportunity to be funnier, [with] more action, every time we do one of these movies. I love doing it.
You say you can keep going on and on--will you?
You know what, I don't know... When I did Rush Hour, I always wanted to do just one of each movie and go on. That's why I never did Friday 2. I was like, I don't wanna do another one, I wanna keep making different movies. This one, it just so happened that...they wanted to do another one, and I said, "Yeah, I wouldn't mind doing another one," and then this one came about from me saying a comment after Rush Hour 2, in a blooper, I said, "That guy won't be in Rush Hour 3," so that spread rumours that we were doing another one, and it just so happens that it just came up. We did another one.
You've obviously known Brett Ratner for a while. How has your working relationship evolved over the years?
It's good, because we became really good friends, we trusted each other a lot on the set. Brett--I know that he knows me well enough to bring out the funny in me, and to make sure that the movie has a certain tone--y'know, the type of comedy that I do, he understands that and that's why we make a good team.
Ratner's films, particularly the Rush Hour trilogy, have come under fire for accusations of racism and xenophobia. How do you respond to that?
I tell Brett all the time, "Man, we gotta watch this, and watch that," because he's definitely a creative director and he doesn't have any fear about stuff like that. And I say, "Brett, we can't do this, you know, that might cause a little this, that, that," and he's like, "Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah." I think we definitely push the edge a lot on a lot of stuff--including myself--and so we have to watch what we do because we do have a lot of kids watching, a lot of people watching.
|Tucker, flanked by Ratner and Polanski on the set of Rush Hour 3|
Is that difficult for you, then? I recall in a documentary for Rush Hour 2 that you had to be convinced to say the word "bitch."
Well, that was just a time in my life, I didn't think that I needed to say, uh, say that. And then, y'know, he made me say it, and it got a big laugh. That's why we work so well together, because I'm not gonna say anything because of a movie, and he's like, "Come on, Chris, people want to see you say that! Say it!" And he got it out of me in some kind of way.
This film, in particular, seems to indulge in a lot of ugly-Americanism.
He put that in there. That was in the script, and I said, "Well, okay, if you want to say that. You don't have to bring that up." But I haven't seen the movie, so I don't how the crowd's gonna respond to it. We'll see how that works.
You sound a little reluctant.
Well, I don't think all French people are arrogant. And I don't think all American people are bad people. I think we've all got our own little arrogance--American people think that everybody should speak English. And, y'know, we're just as arrogant as anybody else here in America.
What was it like working with Roman Polanski?
That was fun. He's the nicest little man, and he seemed like he [had] so much wisdom, and we had a great time. He's just naturally funny-looking, just a funny guy. So it was fun.
He being such an established director, did he try to give you or Ratner any pointers during filming?
He did do something, he would say little things to Brett, like, (French accent) "How about we do this, and we should do this," and I was like, "He knows what he's talking about."
A lot of your shtick in Rush Hour 3 depends on improvisation. How much freedom do you have in that respect?
A lot of freedom, a lot of freedom. This movie, I gotta say--Jeff Nathanson wrote a lot of great stuff, a lot of fun stuff, and he put the foundation there and I just worked on top of that. I get a lot of freedom to do what I gotta do.
And you play a lot off of Jackie Chan.
Oh, I do, yeah. It's so much fun, because Jackie's got great comedy timing, and we both just play off each other a lot.
Do you feel a lot of pressure in that improvisational style, that expectation to be freewheeling?
Yeah, definitely, man. It's a lot of pressure, because some scenes, you try to find the funny in the situation, and it's hard to find, so it's a lot of pressure in that sense. But with the help of Brett, the director, and Jackie, we make it work.
You grew up in Atlanta--traveling around the world like this must be a huge culture shock for you.
It is, man. Traveling--even to Los Angeles--it was big... When I went out there with my country accent, people would laugh at the way I talk. They'd be like, "Say 'orange' again." I'd be like, "'Orange.' What?" Now, going around the world, it's such a great experience, I feel so blessed, because I get to see the world. I get a broad perspective of the world, and we've got so much here in America--and in Africa, there are places with no clean water, places with no schools, no hospitals. That really took me by surprise--well, educated me a lot. I would say in the last six years I've been doing a lot of educating myself about what's been going on in the world... Yeah, I just enjoy traveling, because that's how I educate myself, and there's nothing better than traveling to a place [to learn] about it.
You still do stand-up--how do your stand-up routines translate into your film roles?
It's a lot, man. It helps you with your timing, it helps you with everything. It's like golf--I tell people that stand-up's like golf: you gotta do it every day to get it down--or at least three times a week to get it down. But it helps me a lot with my timing, because on set, you don't have a crowd laughing right after a joke--on stage, they laugh right after a joke, you know if it's funny or if it's not funny. On stage, you gotta know your timing, you gotta feel it. "Well, that could work, I think that'd be funny, people get that." So it's a whole other thing, it helps you a lot.
Your last film was the last Rush Hour, six years ago. Why such a long gap between films?
You know, 'cause I was traveling so much, and that took up a lot of my time, and nothing came by me that struck me, that I wanted to do--that I felt was worth doing.
So you got a lot of offers.
Yeah, a lot of offers. A lot of scripts--but a lot of them are the same... I figure I'll do what I love too, you know, going places, learning, enjoying life--while I'm young.
Did Ratner ever approach you for roles in his films in between the Rush Hour movies?
Yeah, he did, he did approach me [for] a few of his movies, and we were always trying to get some stuff together to work on, but nothing really came up. But he did approach me a few times, but he kept working and I kept doing my thing, too.
You mention all of this traveling--do you value that life beyond filmmaking?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think real life reflects your movies. In your life, you pick stuff that influences what movie roles you wanna pick. I think if you've got an interesting life, you wanna do interesting movies about interesting things. I'm glad that I did [a lot of] traveling and stuff, and I'm gonna do a lot more.
Does that have anything to do with your highly-publicized salary for Rush Hour 3?
Those types of things get out, and I don't ever want it to be...my focus, because, y'know, the money don't really matter. The real reward for me is if the movie is good, and people enjoy the movie--that's the real reward. That's it...if it's successful, then the first reward is people saying, "I appreciate that movie, it made me laugh." The money is part of the reward too, but it's secondary.
Were you surprised by the success of the original Rush Hour?
I really wasn't, because I knew it was a good set-up, it was the perfect vehicle for me--with martial arts and comedy, comedy and martial arts. It's the best. I thought it would do well, and it's one of those movies--it was fresh, it was new, it was hip, and it still is. It's the new generation of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard.
The series has also been criticized for being retreads of those series. Does that kind of criticism bother you?
Oh, yeah, yeah. You definitely get a lot of criticism. We keep it fresh, though, because we keep moving to different locations, like [to] Paris, last time we were in Hong Kong--and that action, Jackie always brings more martial arts, and he's always getting better and better. With me, I always wanna be in funny situations to make sure every scene's got a lot of good energy, and it's funny--that people are not bored all the way through.
With both of you getting older now, do those kinds of antics become more difficult?
Well, not me. Maybe for Jackie... (smiles) Naw, I'm just playin'. Jackie, you know, he's still in great shape. Jackie is in better shape than me... I go into his trailer, he's in there doing push-ups, and I'm like, "What you doin', man?" "Nothing! Nothing!"
Did that foster any kind of rivalry?
Oh, yeah! Yeah! I can't have him doin' better than me. He can't be lookin' better than me... I told him, first time I meet him, I say, "You know I'll kick your ass, right?" He says, "I know! I know!" I said, "All right, well, don't be pullin' no karate shit on me." So we let it go.
Did you research his older roles, his older Hong Kong movies?
Oh yeah! I had all of them--I had Rumble in the Bronx, I had The Drunken Master, I watched 'em all, and I was always a big fan of his before we started working together. That's why I was excited. I said, "Man, this is gonna be cool. This is the perfect vehicle for me." So it was perfect.
Here, a brief pause leads the interview to take a more freeform turn that requires some explanation beyond a straight transcription. He very directly asks me: "Did you see the movie?" I explain that I've only seen a workprint. "What did you think?" At first, Tucker's friendliness puts me on the defensive; I recoil with the old polite standby that it's "got a lot of interesting things in it" and "gave us a lot to talk about," but Tucker is listening intently, and I quickly find that I'm already pre-empting myself by explaining my discomfort with the film's Ugly-Americanism. "Somebody else said that today, too," he says. "So you didn't think that was necessary." No. I continue down a familiar path by pointing out the racial jokes throughout the series, particularly Rush Hour 3's gags about fried chicken and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. "See, that was all Brett. Yeah, it had a lot of stuff that, y'know, even I was like--" he emits a few sounds of reluctant disapproval. "But I understand, I understand totally... So you think it's a little too racist?" I do.
I go on to tell Tucker about my Ratnerthon, and how instances of racism and misogyny can be found throughout the director's oeuvre. Tucker asks for a bit of clarification: "What's misogyny?" "Hatred of women--pathological hatred of women," I tell him--and he smirks, chuckling inscrutably. "That's funny, man--that's deep." I explain my position further by using X-Men: The Last Stand as an example, in how that film turns an Internet catchphrase attributed to the Juggernaut (which, in its original form, really just pokes fun at the character's limited utility in the comic books) into something ugly. "That's deep," he repeats. "That's deep. I wish you could talk to him, but, yeah..." He trails off. The presence of an ad rep and Tucker's next interviewer cuts the conversation short. We exchange pleasantries; he offers a somewhat stiff departing handshake but a warm goodbye: "Hey, thanks man. And I hope, yeah, I hope you guys, ah--I hope I see you again."
A few days later, I finally see Michael Bay's Transformers, the "other" toy-line movie. It's a trainwreck of military fetishism that forces me to assume a position on the age-old (at least around these parts) critical question of "who's the bigger asshole": Ratner is a bully and a jackass who doubtlessly exhibits moments of seething hatred--but he panders exclusively to those on a stunted intellectual level. On the other hand, Bay doesn't merely pander to that demographic, he encourages those outside it to embrace his specialized brand of indiscriminate noise and full-blown fascism, too. It raises the question of where merely ignorant behaviour ends and no-holds-barred bigotry begins; unless some major overhaul saved it in the editing labs, I fear that Rush Hour 3 may represent that final push off the cliff.
So where does that leave Chris Tucker? Where does this man, seen from this perspective as an affable, open-minded individual, find himself, mired as he is in an imbroglio of ignorance? Credit him for his lack of ego, for his willingness to sit down and really listen to the complaints of his critics--but his obviously reluctant participation in Ratner's three-ring circus makes for a rather frustrating consideration of the actor as the director's concubine, as Donald Sutherland once put it. It also leads us to unfortunate conclusions as per his ultimate responsibility for the material he relays from script to screen. Properly applied to sillier, less mean-spirited scenarios, Tucker's manic shtick could work wonders--and despite what a $25M pricetag might imply, the guy deserves a lot more than that which he sets up for himself.