By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 08, 2007 04:00 AM
Credit: Glen Wilson

Rush Hour 3 is the third installment of the action/comedy/ East-cliché-meets-West-cliché blockbuster franchise, but in a sense it could almost be the seventh or eighth. It’s a jerry-built kick-ass insult machine assembled entirely out of secondhand parts. In the opening scene, Chris Tucker, dressed in a police uniform, stands in the middle of a Los Angeles intersection, twirling his limbs around like a windmill as he does a full, choreographed sing-along to Prince’s ”Do Me, Baby,” which is playing on his iPod — a performance that slightly interferes with his job, since he’s directing traffic. It doesn’t take long for Tucker to send two cars hurtling into each other (”I didn’t think you’d go!” he shouts, in his amped-up siren falsetto), but the gag, good as it is, would be funnier if a part of your brain weren’t thinking back to the first time you ever saw this sort of routine: the introduction of Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS., happily oblivious as he sang ”Roxanne” along with his Walkman.

That Murphy reference is far from incidental. The eager yet lazy Rush Hour 3 often made me think of one of those mediocre Beverly Hills Cop sequels; it’s that derivative and slapdash. Like the previous two Rush Hour films, it’s a hybrid (black supercop crime comedy-meets-outlandish martial-arts action!), conceived to tap a demographic bonanza, in much the same way that the Run-DMC/Aerosmith ”Walk This Way” launched a rap-rock musical form largely out of commercial opportunism. The movie got me to thinking: As the last chapter — or, perhaps, the final nail — in our glorious summer of threequels, is this picture the quintessential 2007 throwaway, or is it a vision of our cinematic future?

I remember when part 3 sequels were an automatic low-rent proposition. In the ’80s, if you went to see something like Poltergeist III, you knew that you were getting the juice of an already-squeezed lemon — a concept stretched to the breaking point. Part 3 sequels had a faintly whorish aura; no one could kid themselves that the merchandise was fresh. Now, though, Hollywood has learned to build a better franchise, and to scale our collective expectations toward movies that are different yet the same. This summer, all of us saw high-powered threequels we dug or disliked. The best were the spangly and intricate Ocean’s Thirteen and the nervy and diabolical The Bourne Ultimatum; the worst may have been Shrek the Third, in which the unjolly green ogre had (to me, at least) plainly run out of gas. And Spider-Man 3? At World’s End? They were just okay, but to a great many viewers they were good enough. Part 3 sequels have become like those stadium-size celebrity-chef Vegas restaurants: They offer the lights, the effects, the expensive dishes, the show, even if the guiding creative force hasn’t been around the building for a while. One way or another, we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the repetition, to crave the addiction to movies that feel, reassuringly, just like the movies that came out the summer before, and the summer before that. It’s Copy Machine Culture.

Brett Ratner, who directed all three of the Rush Hour films, is a product of that culture. He isn’t a filmmaker, exactly. He’s a shrewd, lively hustler who throws parties on screen, encouraging his stars to work up the sort of lo mein-versus-fried chicken racial effrontery that is now so corny it ends up just this side of offensive. In Rush Hour 3, Chris Tucker once again leers and raps as Jackie Chan stutters and chops and body-slams. The two are such a well-oiled team that the movie scarcely has any pretense that they could really be at odds with each other. That’s one reason it’s less lively than Rush Hour 2. The other is that Tucker has lost some of the skinny-bodied ferocious insanity of his early years. He’s still a quick-draw cutup, so dazed with self-concern that the world isn’t quite real to him, but he’s no longer acting from hunger.

Watching Rush Hour 3, which is set, for some reason, in Paris, even though its barely functional plot is rooted in the Chinese underworld of the Triads, you react, mostly, to the tossed-off bits, which are like leftover morsels of buddy-comedy fast food. There’s a Tucker-meets-the-Asian-Mob ”Who’s on first” routine (”Yu?” ”That’s Mee!”), which is moderately funny; Roman Polanski as a French cop who insists our heroes undergo a full cavity search (not at all funny); a French cabbie who longs to be an American hero (sort of funny); Tucker thinking Chan is having sex when he’s only fighting (not so funny); Tucker and Chan disrupting a showgirl burlesque with a soft-pop duet (pretty damn funny); and a climax atop the Eiffel Tower (not funny at all, but pretty damn exciting). The end. Until next summer, that is, when we will see it, in one form or another, all over again.