'Rush Hour': TV Review

Cliff Lipson/CBS
An action-comedy that needs needs more action. And comedy.
3/31/2016

CBS' series, a take on the titular Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan franchise, is better than 'Rush Hour 3.'

It was a simpler time, 1998. An African-American detective taught his visiting partner from Hong Kong about the dangers of touching a black man's radio, and Brett Ratner, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan laughed all the way to the bank. Three years later, the roles were reversed and even though that African-American detective learned very little of note in Hong Kong, box-office returns were even bigger. Six years later, after everybody had pretty much forgotten about Rush Hour and its sequel, Ratner, Tucker and Chan got together for another adventure, and I'm not going to insult your intelligence by pretending to remember a single thing that happened, beyond its lethargic awfulness. But it still made money.
 
We're more than 14 years after Rush Hour 2 stripped away the humor and chemistry that helped the original movie overcome its lighthearted racism and xenophobia and more than eight years after Rush Hour 3 salted the ground for the franchise, so you can't really accuse CBS' new TV incarnation of watering down the things that once made Rush Hour work. Premiering on Thursday, CBS' Rush Hour is diluted and fairly charmless, but it's certainly no worse than what the movies already did to the brand.
 
Basically rebooting the premise of the first movie, Rush Hour stars Jon Foo as Detective Lee (first name irrelevant), transferred from Hong Kong to bring down a Chinese crime syndicate he thinks killed his sister. He's paired with Justin Hires' Detective Carter (first name irrelevant), a fast-talking detective whose disrespect for authority and distrust for partners have him chained to a desk by his boss (Wendie Malick, whose Captain Cole actually scores the first name "Lindsay").
 
On the big screen, the first Rush Hour was carried by three things: Tucker's Carter chiding Chan's Lee for not being American/African-American, the apparent hilariousness of Lee's difficulties with English and Chan's martial arts awesomeness. For better or for worse, CBS' Rush Hour either doesn't or can't rest on those laurels.
 
Rush Hour series creators Blake McCormick and Bill Lawrence still have Carter either citing racism or implying racial barriers at every turn, but his unease around Lee is more about his own trust issues than anything else (an idea that's mentioned, but not yet explored). Mostly, when it comes to avoiding the unsavory undercurrent that plagued the movies, my response here was consistently, "Well, it could be worse." It's revealed almost immediately that Lee speaks near-perfect English, which still has the London-born Foo affecting an exaggerated accent and still tries to mine laughs from Lee's uneasy syntax on lines like "The booty is noted," but it could be worse. And yes, Carter has a thugged-out cousin (the often funny Page Kennedy), who rolls with a group of stereotypical gangsters, but at least Carter accuses them of "perpetuating negative stereotypes," so it could be worse. And rather than the asexual infantilization of Lee from the movies, the series mines tropes of emotionless, robotic Asian males, but Foo quickly forges enough chemistry with the appealing Aimee Garcia as Carter's ex-partner that the archetypal emasculation could be worse. These things could all be better, of course, and Rush Hour hasn't settled on any alternative sources for humor, but when it comes to looking for laughs, I'm not going to fault McCormick and Lawrence for somewhat steering away from a few bad potholes.
 
The failure to adequately replace Chan's genius is where Rush Hour ultimately disappoints most. If you've missed Foo's work in The Protector or Bangkok Revenge, pull up some YouTube videos and immediately lament a potential that this CBS procedural dramedy can't come close to fulfilling. He may not naturally have Chan's Buster Keaton-inspired vein of humor, and the action choreography in the Rush Hour pilot gets no funnier than a pool stick in the nuts, but Foo's a master of one-shot, stand-in-free kung fu balletics, not that you'd know it if CBS is your first exposure. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, the action is all-too-brief, all-too-choppy and rarely capitalizes on the "Holy cow!" glee you're supposed to get from keeping the camera trained on somebody with Foo's skill set. Since pilots usually offer a little extra time and a little extra budget to show off, it's a dreadful sign to see Rush Hour failing to distinguish itself upfront and a worse sign that CBS declined to offer additional episodes for review.
 
There's a general cheapness to the visuals on Rush Hour that are also worrisome for unseen follow-up episodes, which usually struggle to live up to pilot production values. Despite being set and shot in Los Angeles, there's no authenticity to scenes at the beach or in Chinatown. And in addition to the less-than-noteworthy fight sequences, an opening helicopter stunt verges on giggle-inducing. 
 
Speaking of chuckles, when it comes to sustaining Rush Hour as a story beyond the pilot, at least the opening installment concludes with an expositional belch of "Here's how things are going to be from now on, don't think too deeply or ever ask about it again" information. With Malick, Kennedy and particularly Garcia, the pilot has a few decent elements in place going forward, but the series will rise or fall on the rapport between Hires and Foo, which is initially absent. Leaving aside that Rush Hour can barely hint at Foo's fighting expertise and has pointlessly saddled him with a broken accent — cultural differences between Hong Kong and Los Angeles could have been foundation enough and Foo could have just talked like Foo — there's no upside at all to saddling a charismatic actor with a stoic character, unless that's all he can do ... in which case, why was he cast? There's also little appeal to Hires doing a Tucker-by-way-of-Kevin-Hart impression, but he doesn't have a track record to indicate what else he might be good at or to suggest how he might ideally interact with Foo. 
 
Ideally, latent character affinity and entertaining action would at least be evident in the pilot, but instead CBS' Rush Hour spends the time carving out a niche that's between the best and worst entries in a brand that has questionable name equity in 2016. And that's how a show ends up premiering at the end of March.
 
Cast: Jon Foo, Justin Hires, Wendie Malick, Aimee Garcia, Page Kennedy
Creators: Blake McCormick, Bill Lawrence
Airs: Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)
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