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Third Time, Still Charming 

It may be guilty, but there's pleasure in this buddy-cop franchise.

Chris Tucker still believes in Michael Jackson. You can tell, because in the opening scene of Rush Hour 3, he squeals, grabs his crotch, and throws his arms to the heavens. A Tucker tip-of-the-hat to Jackson is a staple of the Rush Hour franchise, dating back to the 1998 original, in which Tucker's LAPD detective, James Carter, instructed Inspector Lee, Jackie Chan's Hong Kong cop: "I'm Michael Jackson. You're Tito."

This time around, it first struck me as sweet that the comedian has stayed loyal to his troubled pop-star friend. But a half-dozen scenes later, I began to wonder if the MJ dance wasn't a subconscious signal from Tucker to his audience: "I've been gone from the screen for six years, but I haven't changed. This is what I do, this is what you love, and this is what you're going to get."

Comedy sequels, after all, are typically exercises in nostalgia. Filmmakers, anxious studio execs, and willing audiences collude to create a place where they can tell -- and we can laugh at -- the same joke twice (or thrice), taking us back to a time when the joke was fresh and original. In the case of Rush Hour 3, the joke's the one about the mousy-voiced black comic teaming up with the goofy Chinese martial-arts master.

In the third telling of that very profitable premise, Carter and Lee travel to Paris, where they're given an unfriendly welcome by a French cop (a surprising and snarky Roman Polanski) and enlist an America-hating cabbie (French filmmaker Yvan Attal, stealing the show) in their search for the kidnapped daughter (Jingchu Zhang) of the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. (Tzi Ma). A Chinese gang wants to silence the ambassador, although a few hours after seeing this movie, I couldn't quite recall why. Instead, I remembered a small moment from the movie's elegant Eiffel Tower finale, when Lee scurries like a spider up a giant French flag. It's classic Chan, basic to the Asian film-stunt handbook, but there's joy in Chan's eagerness to execute such moves. It's as if, after all the complex fight scenes he's done, the basics are still satisfying. He's still the Gene Kelly of martial arts.

Tucker can't match Chan's grace, but he seems to know it. A consistent highlight of this family-friendly series (these action heroes never get laid) is the end-credits outtakes montage. It sometimes reveals Chan mistiming a stunt -- a reassuring sight for we mere mortals -- but more often shows him and Tucker flubbing the simplest of lines. The black comic and the Asian hero crack each other up, and watching them delight in one another explains, perhaps, why they return for more -- not only for the dough, but for the merriment of it all. Laughter, it seems, is even more valuable to them than back-end points on a zillion-dollar hit.

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