Why Chris Tucker, you might ask? Well, I might answer: why not? Not only, thanks to Rebecca Black, is Chris Tucker's now the good Friday (Ed. Note: fuck you, that was funny) he's responsible for one of my all-time favorite one-scene performances (in Jackie Brown), maybe two-thirds of the dumb shit I used to say when I was stoned (Friday), and one of the single most gloriously strange, gender-ambiguous pieces of magnificently irritating performance art ever filmed (The Fifth Element). My fandom goes back even further than that, though.
I first heard of Chris Tucker back when my dad and I would watch hours and hours of stand-up comedy on TV every weekend, that being one of the only compromises we could strike because he hated movies with explosions and I hated 18-hour PBS documentaries about soybean farming. It was the middle of the early 90s stand-up comedy boom, when you could catch stand-up on TV just about any hour of the day and night. We caught a lot of great comics and had many mutual favorites (Bill Hicks, Robin Harris, Richard Pryor, Marc Maron, Richard Belzer, and early Bill Maher, the one who was funny, not the one who became convinced he was the weed-smoking Walter Cronkite). I was more partial to women comedians than he was—Laura Kightlinger and Janeane Garofalo will always have special places in my heart—and he was more partial to middle-aged guys from Boston, because he was a middle-aged guy from Boston. But for the most part, we liked the same stuff, especially if Dad had had a bit to smoke.
One show we never missed, in its first couple seasons, was HBO's Def Comedy Jam. This was back in my Dad's hilariously disingenuous period where he'd retire to the other room and come back all giggly and think he was hiding the fact that he was high. Timing was such that he'd usually do this right around the time Def Comedy Jam was about to come on TV, which worked out nicely, as the general tenor of the show was perfect for a dorky 13 year old or a bombed-out-of-his-nards 43 year old. And so we discovered a great many mediocre comics, but just as many if not more who were really fucking funny. We had formed a secular religion based around Bernie Mac in about 1993. My dad came dangerously close to comparing Martin Lawrence to Steve Allen one night before I caught him in time. And, of course, with the subject of this post being what it is, there was Chris Tucker.
He was neither the best stand-up to appear on that show, nor the most original, but he made my dad and me laugh our asses off to the point where it took us two hours to find them again afterwards. One man's mile-a-minute non-sequitur shrieking is another man's hilarity, what can I say. I dislike analyzing comedy, because analyzing comedy isn't funny, so I'll keep this brief: there are many different types of comedians, from the great sage preacher types like Bill Hicks, the raw nerves like Pryor where you're like “holy fuck, did he just say that?”, the observational types, the quipsters, so forth. There is a shortage of straight up wiseasses who are actually funny, and I'd put Chris Tucker in that category. He's no beacon of enlightenment, doesn't mine any apparent demons for cathartic laughs, doesn't do a whole lot of “ya ever notice” and his jokes can be kinda corny. What sold it for me, with him when he was young, was his “I'm just that little wiseass motormouth hyperactive skinny dude”—ness. Sometimes it could be a bit much, but sometimes it really hit the spot.
Like a lot of comedians, when Chris Tucker started doing movies, he'd basically be doing his bits instead of playing a character, but for Friday, that was what was necessary. Ice Cube—no slouch in his ability to read the public's pop cultural appetite—wrote himself a more light-hearted “hood” movie than the ones with which he'd made his initial foray into movies, which were, while groundbreaking at the time of their release, a bit grim for widespread commercial appeal. While Cube could be quite funny at times, he'd yet to attempt outright comedy, and made the wise decision to cast himself as the straight man and Chris Tucker as the funny one. The result, one of the better weed-smoking movies ever made, more consistently funny than most, with great chemistry between Chris and Cube.
As an actor, with one notable exception which we'll get to in a bit, Friday established the template Chris Tucker performance, with slight variations: the endlessly talkative goofball, frequently either high or talking about Michael Jackson, never terrribly intelligent, but never so stupid that he can't pull it together to save the day, although ultimately very very silly. Some killjoys might extrapolate this lack of variation in his screen persona to imply that Chris Tucker is a shitty actor, to which I would say: whoa, whoa, whoa. Back the fuck up. First of all, the guy isn't playing fucking Hamlet. Second of all, lest we infer from that “first of all” that comedy is somehow easy, let's just remember that dude who played Hamlet who, overhearing on his deathbed someone talking about how hard it must be to be shufflin' off the ol' mortal coil, riposted “Dying? That's easy. Comedy? That's hard.” Sure that story's apocryphal, but the reason no one gives a shit that it's apocryphal is that it's fucking true. Maybe Chris Tucker isn't the guy you turn to when you're casting a John Osborne play, but Chris Tucker can do a bit about Michael Jackson as a pimp with Tito as his assistant pimp, and he can be really fucking funny in so doing. Call Nicol Williamson for the Osborne play, I'll stick with Chris for the MJ.
After establishing what would be an ongoing relationship with director Brett Ratner on Money Talks, a commercially successful if unmemorable thing co-starring Emilio Estevez's brother, Chris Tucker broke into movie megastardom with Rush Hour, which was heralded as Jackie Chan's breakthrough role with American audiences, but I noticed a couple things in the theater waiting for it to start: one, as was not unusual in my moviegoing history, me and my mom were the only two white people in the packed theater, and two, everyone in earshot was excitedly talking about the new Chris Tucker movie. Jackie Chan was a fun but secondary element.
But since then, able to command a $20 milion fee—which he's good for, if he ever came out with a new movie that looked even remotely un-fucktarded, it'd make back that $20 mil and more the first weekend—Chris Tucker has only appeared in the Rush Hour sequels, which are what they are, even though Rush Hour 3 is only a movie if you really give it the benefit of the doubt. Still, he made $45 million in salary from those two sequels, plus he had points, and as unmemorable as they were those pictures made a lot of fucking money, so you gotta figure those points made him even richer, so it's not like Chris Tucker has to work or anything. If he's happy, that's all that really matters.
The details of his personal life are, besides being none of our business, not terribly interesting in any tabloid-y kind of way. He's a big God guy and managed to turn his lifelong massive Michael Jackson fandom into a genuine friendship; that in itself is an interesting narrative to chart, watching Chris go from gently but respectfully poking fun at MJ to actually becoming friends with him, to the point where Chris was called, deeply upset, to testify in the last kid-fucking lawsuit. That might make an interesting movie: the dialogue scenes alone between Chris Tucker and Michael Jackson would be some shit out of David Lynch.
As for Chris Tucker's movies that actually do exist, here goes (Ed. Note: this is an incomplete list):
Friday/Money Talks/Rush Hour series
You can kind of lump these all in together and have it only be a slight oversimplification, as pretty much what Chris does in all these is a variation on his stand-up riffs, playing the annoying-yet-somewhat-charming wiseass fuckup. Friday doesn't require any kind of deep analysis; it's a movie you smoke a joint to, with a handful of classic lines, to wit “You get killed with somebody else,” in re: not passing a joint fast enough, and “You just got knocked the FUCK out!” to fallen villain Tiny Lister. Money Talks is dumb but I didn't change the channel that time I caught it on cable.
The Rush Hour series, though, I rather enjoy in spite of its escalating stupidity and the uncanny ability of director Brett Ratner's to make every picture he directs feel physically small (pardon the critical synesthesia, I don't know how else to describe it, his movies feel like crowded studio apartments). My favorite line in the whole series is not, surprisingly, one of Chris' or Jackie's, it's Philip Baker Hall talking to Chris after a horrendous Chris fuckup—casting Chris as a fuckup cop with Walter Mitty Harry Callahan fantasies is pretty much perfect, by the way—but Chris' response is what sells the line:
Philip Baker Hall (a police captain, nota bene): Every now and then we have to let the general public know we still know how to blow shit up.
Chris Tucker (a cop, nota bene praeter): You're goddamn right!
This has always been my philosophy toward cinéma policiers: I don't necessarily want my movie cops to resemble real cops—cuz who the fuck wants to sit through two hours of civil servants struggling to pay their bills and drinking beer watching Yankee games, really—and I certainly like movie cops to know how to blow shit up. Rush Hour, the first one anyway, is a terrifically enjoyable action comedy—easily the best thing Brett Ratner's ever done—and is so largely because of the terrific chemistry between Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. It's also nice to have cats like Philip Baker Hall, Tzi Ma, and Ken Leung show up, and Ken Leung is quite good as the villain. The sequels exist, I've seen them, they're fine, whatever. As cable movies, time-fillers/background noise/what have you, the Rush Hour series has few peers. They're dumb, sure, but they're entertaining, even the third one in Paris.
Taking a step back chronologically, 1997 ultimately was a bit of a turning point for Chris Tucker's career. His three releases each represented a possible career trajectory: there was Money Talks, Chris' first team-up with the above-mentioned Brett Ratner, which could have lead to a sequel called Bullshit Walks (not a bad alternate title for Rush Hour 3, come to think of it), and represented the safe, unambitious, commercial route. This, of course, is the one Chris ultimately took.
What could be called “the middle road” was represented by Jackie Brown. A really good movie, by an actual director, with Chris giving something recognizable as an actual performance, as the doomed underling whom Samuel L. Jackson verbally manipulates into the trunk of his car with an empty shotgun only to be cranially ventilated by bullets from Samuel L.'s gun. It's basically Chris Tucker's standard boilerplate Chris Tucker performance—a weedtarded high-pitched voice wisecracking dude who talks really fast and loud when he gets pissed off—but with good dialogue and actual beats to hit, proving that when called on, Chris actually could thesp respectably. Only problem with this path is that it would have required, simultaneously, the ambition necessary to carve out a career as an actor in good movies and the attendant patience to content one's self with playing supporting roles for a few years. And it also presupposes that that's something Chris himself gave a fuck about, which certainly doesn't appear so from his subsequent career choices.
Last, and certainly not least, is The Fifth Element.
Oh, where do we begin with this one . . . The production design and special effects are seamlessly gorgeous. Speaking of which there's also Milla Jovovich, who makes quite an impression. Bruce Willis Bruce Willises his way through the whole thing without batting an eyelash, which sucks in bad movies but is awesome in good ones, Tiny Lister is the President of the Galaxy (as he motherfucking well should be), Gary Oldman gives what would be the strangest performance in any other actor's career but for him it's merely in a ten-way deathmatch with nine other duckfuckingly insane roles . . . and then there's Chris Tucker.
Chris Tucker's performance in The Fifth Element is like if you gave a drag queen LSD and, knowing exactly when she was going to peak, had her huff a balloon of nitrous oxide. It says something that in a movie where everyone's wearing Jean-Paul Gaultier, Chris Tucker's the one who looks weird, and this is in a movie with a whole marauding army of ass-faced aliens and Milla Jovovich running around wearing gaff tape.
There's no diplomatic way to say this, so I'll say it in the least-diplomatic way possible: you could be on first name basis with the staff at Marie's Crisis, have a dick in your ass and your mouth and one in each hand and be a Republican Congressman and not be as gay as Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element. He's not just gay in this, he's Little Richard Gay. This is kind of like the difference between being a pop singer and being Michael Jackson, for an analogy in Chris Tucker-ese.
Now, I'm not saying this like it's a bad thing at all. Chris Tucker flies the freak flag like it's fuckin Fort McHenry up in this joint. At his most sedate, Chris has a tendency to talk a little fast and chirp a bit, but in The Fifth Element—fittingly for a movie with lots of aliens in it—he talks so fast and in so high a pitch it's like he's speaking an alien language. If you ever want to make a civilian cry, watch The Fifth Element with the sound way up: Chris' voice fucking tortures civilians in this movie. Every thirtieth word or so is intelligible. It's fucking awesome.
Bruce Willis is supposed to find Chris Tucker irritating, and since Bruce Willis is the hero, he's kind of the audience's eyes and ears, but as an actor, the cat isn't exactly Daniel Day-Lewis in terms of staying in character. At several points over the course of the movie you can see Bruce Willis start to crack because Chris Tucker's balls-out batshit insanity is so funny at times that he can't help but struggle a bit.
It has been said that a few of Chris Tucker's lines in The Fifth Element are audible only to dogs. Anyone who's able to interview a dog to find out, let me know, but in the meantime let us be content with the extant evidence, which is that this is one of the truly strange performances ever in cinema. While I love it, I'm a little strange myself and understand it not being people's cup of tea. But oh fuck is it ever mine.
Knowing that he's capable of such off-the-map bizarre brilliance, though, makes it a little disappointing that Chris Tucker is content to restrict his acting to Rush Hour sequels once every five or six years. But hey, it's his career. It'd just be nice if he really tried to be Michael Jackson; while he's not exactly Tito, he's in danger of becoming Jermaine. In so doing, he's in danger of no longer being germane.
For that last joke, you are quite welcome.