‘Rush Hour’ Made Chris Tucker a Superstar. For His Encore, He Walked Away

‘Rush Hour’ Made Chris Tucker a Superstar. For His Encore, He Walked Away

For the record, Chris Tucker hasn’t gone anywhere, although he knows that some fans think otherwise. “It surprises me sometimes because I’m always working,” he said in 2014. “I’m on the road a lot. Last year, I was all over Australia and the Middle East. If you follow me on Twitter then you know.”

That was eight years ago, but if you check his Twitter today, you’ll see announcements of upcoming shows, as well as the occasional shoutout to his hometown Atlanta sports teams. But this week, there was also a brief period when a “Chris Tucker has died” rumor swirled on social media, and while it wasn’t true, it underlined the fact that the 51-year-old has spent most of the last two decades avoiding the thing that made him famous. And with the Rush Hour films back in the collective consciousness thanks to them being added to Netflix, it’s a reminder that, at one point, it seemed like Tucker was going to be the next comedic superstar. Instead, he essentially disappeared — or, more accurately, stopped being in movies. It remains one of the most fascinating vanishing acts of recent years.

Sometimes, celebrities walk away from the spotlight. Dave Chappelle famously quit his popular show because he just wasn’t feeling it anymore. Recording artists like D’Angelo have gone decades between albums. We’re so accustomed to a certain showbiz routine — famous person releases new movie/TV show/record, promotes the thing, goes away to make another one, and the cycle repeats — that it can seem downright perverse when a performer disrupts the formula. Don’t they know the drill? Don’t they know we expect more of the same thing that we liked from them, delivered at regular intervals to keep us satiated? 

In his early career, Tucker didn’t give off the impression that he would eventually shun Hollywood. Quite the contrary, what was so remarkable was how unabashedly in-your-face he was, crafting a series of hilarious, motor-mouthed performances, whether it was in broad comedies (Friday), epic sci-fi spectacles (The Fifth Element) or Quentin Tarantino’s crime flick Jackie Brown. (He could also be a riveting actor in more serious fare, compellingly portraying a doomed Vietnam vet in Dead Presidents.) But the film that was perhaps most representative — and pointed to where he was going — was 1997’s Money Talks, in which he plays Franklin, a hustler who has to go on the run after he’s erroneously accused of murdering some cops. The reviews weren’t great, but Franklin’s live-wire zaniness — his mixture of intensity and high-pitched comedic riffs — suggested Tucker was more than a scene-stealer in other people’s movies. And so Money Talks director Brett Ratner brought him onto his next project, a story of mismatched cops who must work together to rescue a kidnapped girl.

When Rush Hour opened on September 18, 1998, it’s fair to say more people bought a ticket to see Tucker’s iconic co-star, Jackie Chan. A Hong Kong action legend, Chan had the moves and the grace, and even if he wasn’t quite as nimble as he was in his prime, his fight sequences in Rush Hour were plenty captivating. But Ratner’s action-comedy was primarily focused on the duo’s buddy-cop chemistry, eliciting plenty of laughs from the friction between two guys who came from different cultures. Chan’s Detective Inspector Lee was the by-the-book Hong Kong policeman, while Tucker’s Detective James Carter was a shoot-from-the-lip L.A. cop. Sure, Rush Hour played into stereotypes and the characters’ animosity was like a high-octane ripoff of Lethal Weapon, but the movie succeeded because you couldn’t deny just how much fun it was to see Chan as the poker-faced straight man to Tucker’s bug-eyed tantrums. If Carter was solo in a film, it wouldn’t work — Tucker’s cranked-to-11 energy would be exhausting without a complementary actor grounding him in something real — but the two of them together was dynamite. 

Initially, though, Chan wasn’t convinced, fearing that Rush Hour was awful. (“That’s a terrible movie,” he remembers telling his manager. “They don’t allow me to do my own style . The English, I’m not good. Chris Tucker’s English, I don’t understand. Terrible movie!”) But Rush Hour was a surprise hit, helping to cement Chan’s crossover into American movies. As for Tucker, it made him a superstar. 

It also made him rich. This was an era when comedians were commanding astronomical amounts for their films. Jim Carrey made history when he was the first actor to collect a $20 million payday, for The Cable Guy, and a few years later, Tucker was paid the same amount for Rush Hour 2.  Tucker wasn’t fazed by those who said he wasn’t worth such a hefty sum. “ made $250 million around the world, so $20 million isn’t that much when you look at it like that,” he explained when the sequel was released in the summer of 2001. “Rush Hour was a big success, so you benefit from that success.” All Rush Hour 2 did was gross even more money than the first.

And then… well, Tucker just took a break. He showed up in music videos for Mariah Carey and his friend Michael Jackson. But we didn’t see him again on the big screen for six years, and that was for Rush Hour 3, which he got $25 million to do. Not that he was just sitting around — for one thing, he was devoted to doing charitable work. “I got to travel with Bill Clinton through Africa, which was an incredible experience,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “You get this success and other people invite you to do things and take these trips. I’m glad I said, ‘I’m going to Africa and learn what’s going on in the world.’ It shaped me as a person and shaped my life going forward.” And he went back to stand-up, hitting the stage for the first time in about 10 years. “Stand-up gets me warmed up for the movie,” Tucker told a reporter as he was preparing to film Rush Hour 3. “It keeps you sharp, and also current on what’s going on.” But he seemed happier not making movies. After years of struggling as a comic, Tucker might have been tempted to capitalize on his fame by saying yes to lots of things. Instead, he said no.

Partly, it was because he decided he had enough money to kick back for a while. (“I just wanted to chill by the beach,” he once said.) Also, he found religion. Last year, his Friday collaborator Ice Cube revealed on Twitter why Tucker hadn’t been in the sequels. “We were ready to pay Chris Tucker $10-12m to do Next Friday but he turned us down for religious reasons,” Cube said on social media. “He didn’t want to cuss or smoke weed on camera anymore.” 

Tucker has admitted as much: In a 2014 interview while discussing his stand-up routines, he said, “I never was a raunchy, raunchy comic but I didn’t think about what I was saying because I was young. Being a Christian helps me in comedy. I have to talk about other stuff. Normally, most comics talk about stuff that’s easy — maybe cussing or saying something raunchy. I have to dig deeper to find something that’s still funny and not raunchy. It’s harder. I like the challenge.”

Whatever the reasons, his decision to stop making movies added an intriguing wrinkle to his public persona. Often, when artists go away for a while, they’re labeled as complicated, obsessive types. (Basically, the Stanley Kubrick model of creative expression.) But Tucker wasn’t some brooding genius — he was just a really funny guy who did buddy-cop action-comedies. Rush Hour 3 wasn’t as big as Rush Hour 2, but it still did well — and, yet, neither sequel was a classic. Where the formula felt fresh in the 1998 original, the follow-ups were simply less inspired. So while his departure bolstered his mystique, it also created a sense that maybe film stardom wasn’t that big of a deal to him. Maybe he just preferred doing stand-up and enjoying his riches — although that last assumption is complicated by the fact that he’s had major IRS problems over the years

Invariably, the rare times he’s done interviews in recent years, the question comes up: Why don’t you do movies anymore? This was asked a lot when, seemingly somewhat randomly, he showed up in David O. Russell’s 2012 romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, his first non-Rush Hour movie in 15 years. “I’m a perfectionist and it’s real hard for me to do something when I don’t feel it’s fresh and new,” he explained to The Guardian. “I did this one because I thought it was a great movie dealing with mental illness. It intrigued me because I was learning at the same time, you know, playing this character.” 

His next film was, again, a small role, in 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for Oscar-winner Ang Lee. “I wait for special stuff,” he said, later adding, “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great directors, like David O. Russell and Ang Lee. Working with them helped me grow and be a better actor.”

He was perfectly fine in both films, but it wasn’t the Chris Tucker we’d come to expect — he didn’t have the space to cut loose like in his earlier career. You can see that a little more in his 2015 Netflix stand-up special Chris Tucker Live, where his short-fuse comedic explosiveness is on display. But one of the things that was so dynamic about his first films was their rambunctious youthfulness — the feeling that this crazed kid was bursting at the seams, just waiting to be discovered. And once he did, he chose to downshift. Now middle-aged, it’s probably harder for him to imagine reprising his Rush Hour role again, although there are constant rumors about a potential fourth installment. (“I don’t know if we’ll do another one,” he said in that L.A. Times interview, “but Jackie and I are talking all the time about working together again.”) 

That brilliant whippersnapper has now grown up, which is why we’re more likely to see Tucker next on the big screen in Ben Affleck’s ambitious Nike movie, which presumably will come out next year. As with Silver Linings Playbook and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he’ll be part of the ensemble, an actor who will attract attention because, hey, it’s Chris Tucker doing a movie — that doesn’t happen much anymore. 

We sometimes assume we know better than celebrities in terms of how they should be conducting their career. Most of us in his position would have probably been in a lot more films at the height of our stardom — just so we could see how high that star could rise. Tucker took another path. Consequently, watching the Rush Hour movies is now a slightly strange sensation, providing a fleeting glimpse at a prodigious talent. Look at that ball of energy pinballing around the screen — enjoy it, because it’s not going to be there forever. 

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