- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

LOS ANGELES — When 1998's "Rush Hour" cemented Chris Tucker's status as a bankable comic actor, he could have done what other flavors of the moment had done before him — lunge at the first script that came his way. Instead, he leafed through one screenplay after another and bided his time, even initially turning down the chance to reteam with Jackie Chan for another "Rush Hour."
Mr. Tucker makes his belated return to the screen in "Rush Hour 2," which opened yesterday.
Three years is an eternity in Hollywood, long enough for someone as irrepressible as Mr. Tucker to fade in the eyes of producers. But the hyperkinetic actor says he didn't want to take his next career step without a thorough dose of soul-searching.
"The reason I haven't been doing a lot of movies is because I've been concentrating on myself," says Mr. Tucker during a recent press junket on behalf of the film. "I wanna be more successful in life, and that'll bring out the best of me, in movies and whatever I do beyond that.
"I could have easily done stupid comedies. I turned down a lot of stuff. That ain't fun to me," says Mr. Tucker, sporting a regal black suit courtesy of a shop Mr. Chan owns in Hong Kong.
One can point to his reportedly $20 million paycheck for the movie as reason enough to step back before the cameras. Or, perhaps the fear that if he stayed away any longer, Hollywood might change the locks on the door back into the realm.
But Mr. Tucker comes across as surprisingly grounded for such a live comic wire. The rapid-fire talker from Atlanta cites the Bible as the book that changed his life with a solemnity that doesn't appear scripted.
He returns to the budding "Rush Hour" franchise as Detective James Carter, a loose-limbed huckster who clashes comically with a straight-arrow detective from Hong Kong, played by Mr. Chan. In "Rush Hour 2," the disparate detectives travel to Hong Kong for vacation only to stumble upon a money-smuggling ring led by the mysterious Ricky Tan (John Lone) and the lethal fists of henchwoman Hu Li ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's" Zhang Ziyi). Once more, the detectives swap one-liners and fisticuffs while solving the case.
The pairing of Mr. Chan and Mr. Tucker clicks, no matter how hackneyed the formula. What's equally interesting is their relationship off-screen.
Interviewed separately as part of the "Rush Hour 2" promotional push, the duo talk as if the other might be listening.
Their off-screen kinship may be a publicity stunt, but their on-screen chemistry is the stuff that can't be manufactured during a producer's power lunch.
They even spent time together during breaks in shooting.
"Jackie took me out to eat one night. I was so hungry, I didn't care what I was eating," Mr. Tucker recalls, his voice escalating as the punch line nears. "I ate a whole bunch of squid legs. I thought it was spaghetti."
He tells a story physically, his eyes casting about the room for his audience, as his tongue trips over the next joke.
He's a perfect match for Mr. Chan, who is anything but comfortable wrestling with dialogue.
"People ask me, 'What kinds of stunts are difficult?' No, English is difficult," Mr. Chan good-naturedly says.
"Rush Hour 2" director Brett Ratner, who also did the original, says he immediately saw the pair's potential.
"When they first met, Chris leaned over to me and said, 'I didn't understand a word he said.' That's when I realized they were gonna be great together," Mr. Ratner says.
Mr. Tucker says the sequel allows them to add to the foundation built in the first film, a sleeper hit that hauled in $140 million.
"In the first movie, we had to set up the characters. They come from two different worlds. In this movie, we already knew each other. We can have even more fun," Mr. Tucker says.
That film's fish-out-of-water conceit gets applied once more, with Mr. Tucker's character now roaming the colorful streets of Hong Kong.
"It gave a fresh new turn to the movie. There's a lot of excitement to seeing me, a black man, going through Hong Kong, not knowing where to go," he says.
Mr. Chan says that despite their apparent differences, he and his co-star share some similarities that help them bond.
"Chris and me are born from poor families," says Mr. Chan, clad similarly to Mr. Tucker but in a warmer beige shade. Like Mr. Tucker, "My personality is happy-go-lucky."
Mr. Chan says his amiable co-star served as an unofficial cultural consultant while on set.
"If there's something I don't know, I tell Chris to teach me, teach me," Mr. Chan says.
"I really taught Jackie a lot," Mr. Tucker says, smiling, referring to the madcap martial arts sequences, Mr. Chan's trademark, which dominate the film. "I was in 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Negro.' You didn't really see me, but I was in there."
Mr. Tucker's conversations turn more thoughtful when he reflects on his career status. He began dreaming of Tinseltown as a boy watching movies in Atlanta. He might catch four features in a row if the cinema moved him.
"I was fascinated by them. This is what I want to do. I gotta learn how to do this," he says. Richard Pryor's films, in particular, helped couch those dreams in realistic terms.
"I remember the first time he did 'Stir Crazy,' we used to go to theaters and see that he just represented every black person," he says.
Now, Mr. Tucker has the chance to influence tomorrow's crop of young actors.
Up next for the 28-year-old actor is "Mr. President," a comedy in which he portrays the first black commander in chief. A film documenting his stand-up comedy also is in the works.
He may view his career more cautiously than others, but the big picture is forever in his peripheral vision.
"I wanna do so many different things. I think my career is just starting," he says. "People are offering me the best roles. I'm creating my ideas that I've always wanted to do."
It's one of the few times in the conversation when his comments don't provoke laughter.
Breaking the $20 million salary ceiling is the dream of most actors, but with it comes a dwindling of privacy. Mr. Tucker acknowledges that his life could change even more if "Rush Hour 2" repeats the original's success. But he is ready for it.
"There's downsides to everything," he says. "There's downsides to working at a gas station. I ain't complaining."

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