Thursday, March 31, 2016
Pilot Review: Rush Hour
Rush Hour (Thursdays at 10:00 on CBS)
Here we are again, folks: a few months later, and CBS has premiered yet another odd TV extension of a popular film following the moderate success of their fall launch of Limitless. Rush Hour has quite a few of the same problems as Limitless and then some, proving that just because an idea worked once doesn't mean it will work again (as if Rush Hour 3 didn't already prove that in the original film franchise). This notion can be applied to both the development of successful films into watered down television shows, as well as to remaking this particular story, which feels dated and tiresome eighteen years after the film grossed a quarter-billion dollars.
The desire to adapt Rush Hour for television isn't inherently misguided. Its concept is ripe for a procedural-type series about mismatched police partners, and CBS is always looking to fill its schedule with barely-new procedurals. Had they taken the basic idea of putting a Chinese man and a fast-talking African American together and called it a day, this pilot might have come off better than it did. But by repeating several plot points of the original Rush Hour film and retaining the titles and main characters, you have to compare the show to the film. There's just no way around it. Whereas Limitless at least extends the film's universe and follows a new set of characters, Rush Hour is basically a poorly done remake, something akin to a skit SNL might have done about the movie back in 1998. We're once again following LAPD Detective James Carter (Justin Hires, a former bit player in his first real role), a rule-breaking smart mouth who's constantly butting heads with his captain (Emmy nominee Wendie Malick, Just Shoot Me!) and getting into trouble with the department. He works alone until the Hong Kong police send one of their best agents, by-the-numbers tough guy and martial arts expert known only as Lee (John Foo, a former stuntman just like Chan). Rather than chasing a kidnapped daughter, however, as in the film, this time Lee's sister (Jessika Van, Awkward.) is abducted and turned by a Chinese gang who have also made off with some of the ancient Terracotta Warriors.
To start, Rush Hour's biggest problem is in not understanding what made the film so successful and so memorable. It wasn't the premise; it's little more than a buddy cop film. It was the action, the style, the humor, and the performances of Chan and Tucker, none of which has been repeated for television. Director John Turteltaub (best known for action features like National Treasure but who recently did another take on the mismatched buddy cop thing on USA's short-lived Common Law) tries his hardest to infuse the same excitement the film contained into the pilot, but it just can't be matched. Foo is nowhere near Chan's talent for stunts or fight choreography, and the budgetary restrictions of broadcast TV on on full display; while there are several action sequences, they're all relatively short (and the longest and most expensive looking only involves Hires as he jumps from a crashing helicopter). Turteltaub also doesn't have Brett Ratner's feel for pacing and flash, both of which gave the movie momentum and a sense of fun, with the pilot feeling rather sluggish when it's not engaging in action scenes. The teleplay is similarly disappointing, despite being credited to the two original film writers, Jim Kouf (Grimm) and Ross LaManna, as well as veteran sitcom writer Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Spin City) and Blake McCormick (Cougar Town). My guess would be the film writers got credit because so much of their story structure is borrowed, while the actual teleplay was written by Lawrence and McCormick; I say that because almost none of Kouf and LaManna's humor comes through in the pilot, which feels very hokey and forced... not unlike a sitcom, which would make sense given the writers' backgrounds. The script is littered with such cringeworthy lines as, "I'm going to shoot you, bring you back to life, and shoot you again!" There are no instantly quotable pieces of dialogue, despite the movie containing some lines that are now just part of my generation's jargon ("Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!" anyone?). Lee is totally straight-laced and never loosens up the way he does in the film (who could forget Jackie Chan singing "War"?), so that humor is lost as well. And whether Chris Tucker improvised much of his lines or not, I don't know, but Hires is nowhere near as funny as Tucker was.
That's hard to say, because Hires probably has the most difficult job of anyone. He can't just copy what Tucker did in the film, because no one can be Chris Tucker except Chris Tucker. Plus that's just lazy. But he also can't go in the opposite direction and be more serious or quieter or whatever, because he is still playing the same character and the comic relief. Hires has to honor the memory of what Tucker did with the role while still making it something new and different, and he just can't do it. Matters aren't helped by John Foo's woodenness, giving Hires little to work off of.
There are other, smaller things that annoyed me as well. Most glaringly was the fact that two Asian actors of completely different nationalities were cast to play Lee and his sister: Foo is Irish and Chinese (with very white features, which I'm sure will drive some bloggers into a frenzy of imperialist, whitewashing posts), and Van is Taiwanese. They look nothing alike, to the point that I started contemplating whether or not it was just stupid or actually racist to have these two actors playing related characters when I should have been paying attention to the show. (I rewound after I caught myself; I missed nothing.) It's also criminal how underused Wendie Malick was overall, and how misused she was when she was on-screen (she gets that awful line I wrote above about shooting Carter). Knowing how the movie ended, I anticipated the "twist" at the end of the pilot. And Dexter's Aimee Garcia plays a police officer who has no defining characteristics whatsoever and so little screentime that she barely registers, despite being a series regular moving forward.
There's a lot wrong here. More than what's right, for sure. (The only thing that really worked for me was the violence, which is very much like the film and doesn't shy away from showing people being shot and bleeding, as is typical for broadcast networks.) Like I said, had the outline of Rush Hour been borrowed as Asian and black policemen working together, and maybe some of the film's style, like mixing a traditional martial arts film with a high-energy American action movie, this could have been better. I would have pointed out its similarities to Rush Hour, but I wouldn't have been comparing every single moment of that show to it. Instead, we get this poorly directed, poorly written, poorly acted, mostly boring repurposing of the superior film on the small screen. Hopefully, future developers of film-to-TV shows will learn from this one, because there's really nothing positive to say here.