Popular culture consumers are a generous and forgetful bunch. Something can disappear, then come back the same but different, and it'll seem like it never left. Certain entertainers, like Cher, have that kind of crowd-pleasing durability. So, too, does the "Rush Hour" franchise. These movies are the Cher of cartoonish action-comedies: hard to embarrass and probably not biodegradable.
"Rush Hour 3" puts Chris Tucker's Carter and Jackie Chan's Lee in another senseless plot -- Chinese triads, the streets and sewers of Paris, kick, bang, boom! When the ambassador who Lee has been protecting is shot at an international conference in Los Angeles, he and Carter go looking for the culprits and the mysterious gangland list behind it all. Unnaturally, this leads to a Parisian chanteuse named Genevieve who's played by Noémie Lenoir, the light-skinned European supermodel who suggests that Beyoncé is French for "great, big mannequin." (She's actually put to more ludicrous use, but you have to see it to believe it.)
Along the way, we get refried scenes. Look, it's Carter and Lee bickering on the plane and in the hotel, and look out, here comes a deadly dragon lady (Youki Kudoh) with a daggered Chinese fan. This is the same parade of cheery racism and blithe misogyny that we got six years ago with "Rush Hour 2." This new one has even been sprinkled with unashamed movie icons (Max von Sydow and Roman Polanski have small parts) and has made room for Yvan Attal to steal all his scenes playing a Parisian cab driver who falls in love with America.
This movie makes a fine replacement for the previous two installments. They've all been directed with lots of affection by the incurably average Brett Ratner, who sets his climactic fight atop the Eiffel Tower and demonstrates how the French flag can double as a parachute.
Of course, he also remembers that part of the appeal of these movies is the fantasy it promotes: We can all be jive, even Dana Ivey, who has an amusing cameo as a nun who translates a French-Asian baddie's racial slurs for Tucker and Chan. Being around Tucker makes you want to say obliviously ignorant stuff to everybody in a voice that squeals.
"Rush Hour 3" reminds us that Tucker is an utterly strange entertainment phenomenon: He exists only in the world of these movies. He's done virtually nothing else since the first one came out in 1998 (I guess it takes about six years to count $20 million, which was Tucker's salary for the previous installment), and you miss the instrument that is his voice. It's like the zither or the theremin -- you want to get close enough to hear how he makes that sound. For this sequel, Tucker gets to sing a lot more. He does Prince's "Do Me, Baby" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
And his lasciviousness is taken up a notch, as though Tucker's only chance to approach women is when he's making these movies. "These girls are sushi-grade," he says about two ladies he's arresting. His Carter is a walking R. Kelly song -- he's not heterosexual or bisexual. He's just sexual. You get the sense that he'd hit on a park bench if it would say yes.
But Ratner, working with a script by Jeff Nathanson, is open-minded enough to admit what "Rush Hour 3" is: a love story between its two stars. When they fight and split up, Elton John fills the soundtrack, Lee sees African tribesmen on TV and wistfully orders fried chicken, while Carter, feeling the same, orders moo shu. For their reconciliation, they lovingly sing to each other "The Closer I Get to You" (with Genevieve, basically serving as an afterthought) on stage in front of hundreds of Parisians. This all feels borderline radical: a series of gags that seem sincere despite themselves.
Between this and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry," it feels a lot like Hollywood is prepping us for some kind of seismic coming out. Who knows where Carter and Lee are dancing off to together at the end of this movie. But I'm ready to pronounce them Chris and Jackie.