It was just over five years ago, in early August 2007, that Rush Hour 3 began a theatrical run that ended up with more than $250 million in worldwide revenues. It made clear the screen value of Chris Tucker, who starred in the film and its two predecessors with Jackie Chan, and who reportedly was paid an epic $25 million to appear in the movie. Indeed, where the first Rush Hour began with an extended action sequence built around Chan, the third started with Tucker’s policeman character directing traffic while moving and singing along to Prince’s Do Me Baby.
But since then, Tucker has been as famous for what he has not done as for what he has. As far as public performance is concerned, he has not done much.
To be sure, he is back to his stand-up origins, appearing at 8 p.m. Saturday in Cleveland’s State Theatre as part of his Guess Who’s Back tour. But, as that title indicates, he did seem to take a long professional hiatus.
The Madame Lenoire website put him in a list of celebrities who went missing at the height of their fame, (Other names included Maxwell, Terence Trent D’Arby and Dave Chappelle.)
Rush Hour 3 is his most recently released movie, although he had plenty of other opportunities after the first Friday movie with Ice Cube, the original Rush Hour and performances in the The Fifth Element and Dead Presidents that made clear that he could make a strong impression in comedy or drama.
Indeed, Splitsider.com last year offered a recap of Tucker’s “lost roles,” saying he passed on a part in Lethal Weapon 4 (which went to Chris Rock), Any Given Sunday (Jamie Foxx), two sequels to Friday (where Mike Epps succeeded Tucker as Cube’s sidekick), Black Knight (Martin Lawrence), the Pink Panther revival (Steve Martin) and Knight and Day (Tom Cruise).
And those were just the movies that got made. The DVD of the first Rush Hour declares that Tucker would be making Double-O-Soul, a spy movie that would have been Mariah Carey’s screen debut. It never happened.
Tucker does not settle for just anything that comes along, no matter what the paycheck or billing. When Double-O-Soul still seemed possible a decade ago, he told Zap2It.com that he had wanted script rewrites to set it apart from the Austin Powers films — “to make it more real.” His born-again Christianity was said to make him reject roles like those in the raw-talking Friday sequels. While it has been rumored that Tucker will return to the Friday franchise for a new film, Ice Cube made clear in one radio interview that it would take more than a call to Tucker to make that happen; “He’s not going to say yes until he sees a script.”
And Tucker has over time made clear that he has some very strong ideas about what should be on the screen. While his performing career dates back to African-American-targeted work like Def Comedy Jam, he has tried to avoid being seen as just a performer for African-Americans.
“I know people, all people, and I make sure I can relate to everybody,” he told Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the book America Behind the Color Line, a companion to the TV series of the same name. “I don’t want to be a comedian that just gears toward black people or just gears toward white people. I want to be a universal comedian.”
The success of the Rush Hour films suggested that universality, but he reportedly walked away from movies because he was only getting offered Rush Hour-like roles that he told the New York Times “just weren’t good enough.”
That may have changed. November brings Silver Linings Playbook, with Tucker co-starring with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. He is also talking about releasing a stand-up concert movie from his current tour, although he has raised that possibility more than once before.
But professional desires are sometimes trumped by more basic needs. With his 40th birthday waiting at the end of August, he is not a young star anymore. Tucker returned to stand-up last year amid reports that he owed the IRS $11.5 million and that his $6 million Florida home was in foreclosure. One joke in his monologue: “That’s the last time I let Wesley Snipes help me out with my taxes.” Covering a later show in that 2011 tour, Miami New Times added that Tucker joked “that he was so bad with money that he’d bought two houses right next to each other and then ended up going door to door asking himself if he could borrow a cup of sugar.”
Will that play with audiences facing their own, deeper financial troubles? It depends, of course, on whether he can make it funny. Last year he told the New York Times that he had not really disappeared for years. “I’ve been living,” he said. Now audiences can see if that living gave him good material.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. including in the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can reach him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.