In the 1998 action-comedy Rush Hour, veteran Chinese Detective Lee (Jackie Chan) forms an unlikely partnership with loudmouth LA cop James Carter (Chris Tucker) to solve the kidnapping of the daughter of the Chinese consul Han (Tzi Ma). Along the way, they form a strong friendship built upon trust and mutual respect, acknowledging their unique strengths and weaknesses to solve the crime that the FBI brass cannot. In Rush Hour, racial minorities are shown to overcome their white counterparts, commenting on both California white-black relations and Western imperialism in both main characters fighting back against the racial majority.
The film begins on the final day of British rule in Hong Kong; this establishes the overarching theme of combating imperialism. The film’s central plot revolves around the appropriation of Chinese treasures by a mysterious criminal chief named Juntao on the day when Great Britain gives power of Hong Kong back to China. Here, the return to power is celebrated, as it ends a huge cycle of British imperialism that had been occurring for decades. In the past, the British Empire had conquered and colonized many foreign countries, including Hong Kong and India, among others. This had led to imperialistic rule over people who did not want to be ruled by others, and the forcing of Western ways of living on these people. With the end of this rule being the first incident (and subject) of the movie, Rush Hour shows that its concern is in returning rightful agency to oppressed minorities.
At the center of the film is the relationship between Lee and Carter, which forms the ‘east-meets-west’ premise of the film. This is formed on some fairly basic stereotypes, but the characters are fleshed out enough to make them more well-rounded, and the humor typically comes from their lack of understanding of each other and not their own personalities. Carter is the stereotypical streetwise African-American man – he’s flashy, flirty and outspoken. Carter’s main weapon is his wit, as he constantly talks circles around everyone else.
Lee, on the other hand, is literally played by a Chinese martial arts star, and so much of his work revolves around his kung fu-based antics. Much humor is made of strong Chinese accent and his lack of understanding of English. While there are moments that poke fun at his accent (Carter at one point hilariously shouts, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” ), it feels natural and not offensive. Their cultural differences lead them to actually start bonding; the scene where they both sing to “War” is charming, as it allows them to find common ground.
On a related note, the third main protagonist is Carter’s Latina partner and Bomb Squad officer Johnson (Elizabeth Pena), another strong-minded minority who is able to provide a positive portrayal of her people. As both a woman and a Latina, she proves herself to be level-headed, strong-willed and brave; she is usually the person who keeps Carter in line. While this could get dangerously close to the “emasculating Latina woman” stereotype, it never falls into that territory, and instead is merely refreshing.
Their roles in the solving of the mystery and the rescue of Han’s daughter showcase a world where minorities are constantly not listened to or given respect, despite their being right. The FBI are represented by two white men, who are constantly critical of Carter and Lee and doubtful of their ability to notice what is going on. They arrogantly assume they know what is going on, and often act as an obstacle for Carter and Lee’s investigation. Other white characters include the real Juntao, who turns out to be a villainous British turncoat (Tom Wilkinson) – this is an interesting bit of subtext, because, like the British to the Chinese, he has appropriated their art and culture and taken it away from them. To that end, Lee and his other oppressed friends, in stopping Juntao, avenge the terrors of British rule over the Chinese. In the end, the two FBI agents, having learned not to mistrust Carter and Lee, offer Carter a position with them, which he promptly refuses; he decides not to betray his principles in working with people who had wronged him before.
In conclusion, Rush Hour has a few problematic elements regarding race (namely the foundation of cultural traits upon stereotypes), but it manages to tell an overall story of minorities demonstrating their ability to be equals to (and even surpass) the abilities of whites. The characters fight against colonialism and cultural appropriation using their combined skills, and show themselves to be extremely capable despite their quirks. Furthermore, other minority characters (like Han and his daughter) are presented with care and sensitivity, as mere victims of a crime rather than commenting on their race. Because of this and other elements of the film, Rush Hour presents a wholly positive outlook on race.
Ratner, Brett. (dir.) Rush Hour. Perf. Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Tom Wilkinson. New Line
Cinema, 1998. Film.