Matthew Vaughn initially made a name for himself as a producer with Guy Ritchie (from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels through Swept Away) before taking a seat in the director's chair for the 2004 release Layer Cake. That debut might well be known as the final shot that earned Daniel Craig his license to Bond, but the spirited visual style landed Vaughn a ticket to the Hollywood action franchise shortlist.
He was squarely framed to helm the final installment in the X-Men series after the departure of Bryan Singer, who in turn was flying up, up and away behind the Superman restart. Yet prior to settling in, Vaughn skipped the scene, eventually choosing this adaptation of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel Stardust as his next feature project.
So at least he stayed in the comic book genre, although instead of superheroes, Stardust seeks to reinvigorate the romantic fairy tale world with that same hip flair for visuals. There is less grit in Vaughn's conception -- the look and feel is decidedly polished and animated with much flash -- but it's obvious that this world offered him enough of a twist to wrap his hands and mind around.
A young man named Tristran (Charlie Cox) embarks on an impossible journey through a magic kingdom in order to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria (Sienna Miller), the terribly spoiled object of his affections. The fallen star takes on human form (the surprisingly beautiful and slightly goofy form of Claire Danes) and finds herself the object of a number of hapless pursuers, including a trio of witches led by Michelle Pfeiffer (in the midst of a major career resuscitation between this and Hairspray) and a devious collection of heirs seeking to succeed their father the King (Peter O'Toole) by any means necessary.
Now Stardust yearns for sprightly grace and sparkle and nearly achieves it thanks to a heaping of pixie dust from a gaggle of supporting players like Robert DeNiro, Rupert Everett, Sir Ian McKellan and Ricky Gervais along with the aforementioned names and faces. But for all the star power, the film fails to burn through the frames and into our imaginations. It has spark, which is clearly from co-writer/director Vaughn's flint, but not enough to catch fire and truly inspire.
Brett Ratner leaves the comic book world behind as well after a brief sojourn in the field. Remember that he took the reins of X3: The Last Stand once Singer and Vaughn jumped ship and put an end to the series, leaving it in the hands of the hired guns steering the multiple spin-offs through development hell.
Ratner has been bandied about for other blockbuster projects (like Superman Returns before Singer) and signed on for a few (Hannibal), but here he's back in his bread and butter role as the force behind the international buddy cop pairing of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan.
Rush Hour 3 marks not only the return of the two fish-out-of-water police officers but the reemergence (although it could be brief, so beware) of Chris Tucker. He's proven to be one of the most reclusive urban action heroes of all time, totally avoiding the trap of over-exposure that capsizes so many careers. As a smart funnyman, he understands that he doesn't need to rush to repeat the same joke in feature after feature.
The joke and/or the shtick actually remains fresh when it's delivered less frequently -- say every six years in this case -- because Rush Hour 3 is certainly nothing more than another extended riff on the premise of the first film. Los Angeles Police Det. James Carter (Tucker) and Chinese Inspector Lee (Chan) pitter-patter their way through a series of comic misadventures in a criminal investigation that takes them around the world in 90 minutes -- when the surprise villain has been staring them dead in the face since the opening frame. But they do seem to have fun along the way.
Have they lost a step or two in the years between 2 and 3? (There's something about the lean efficiency of a franchise that doesn't feel the need to subtitle its installments.) Well, in the set-up the fellas devote more time to the verbal interplay than the wacky action set pieces that come later.
But it's Tucker who seems to show more signs of age (and the middle-age spread that has rounded out his early leanness), although once his high-pitched motor mouth gets to running he's like a lethal dose of laughing gas. Chan can still kick the ass of the Energizer Bunny, but after all this time why hasn't he taken a few more lessons in English to help him get over the hump?
Yet it's Ratner who has the most to prove. He's the mid-career veteran who has stepped into the spotlight a few times and taken some swings, but he hasn't shown that he's a big-game hitter. And Rush Hour 3 feels like a slugger knocking them out of the park in batting practice.
Maybe he should take a cue from Vaughn, the talented rookie who looks past the flashing lights of the cameras and plays the game to win or lose on his own terms. Stardust: grade C; Rush Hour 3: grade C-.