“Nice rack,” the most repeated phrase in the new Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt movie, actually fails to fulfill its connotative purpose. Used by Mr. Chan at Ms. Hewitt’s expense, it ultimately causes the audience to lose respect for both characters. The hackneyed early-‘90s phrase limps off the screen. The joke doesn’t reach its audience and the punch line feels more like a soft tap.
The Tuxedo, put together by four writers (always a bad sign) and a director whose previous job was filming McDonald’s commercials, centers on Jimmy Tong (Chan), a sweet-natured chauffeur who works for secret agent Clark Devlin. Devlin is put out of commission after an occupational hazard leaves him in the hospital.
Tong goes back to the mansion to fetch some personal belongings for Devlin and tries on his tuxedo, a self-tailoring garment that gives extraordinary powers to anyone who wears it. Soon after donning the dreamcoat and slacks, Tong finds himself at the center of international intrigue and espionage and paired with an inexperienced partner (Hewitt).
The Tuxedo may be a painstakingly devised series of feats, but it trips on itself every step of the way. Chan plays the requisite, loveable innocent thrust into a world he doesn’t know, which this time around is both good and bad. The truth is, he always plays this character, and we like him as the goofy gallant with a heart of gold and body of elastic. He is a special effect, parrying and pirouetting through meticulously choreographed set pieces, which danger levels rarely ratchet higher than the production designer’s shallow factor of fear.
We’re impressed, but with reservation. Which is more fantastic, the sight of someone tumbling down the face of a building, or the fact that they’re doing so on film without the aid of a stunt-double?
It’s becoming all too clear that Chan is getting on in years. He’s not as quick on the draw during action sequences, and his little big man character is becoming less convincing with each performance. He can still safely pine after his twenty-something counterpart, but when she reciprocates, we are inclined to snigger uncomfortably.
Jackie Chan’s best costars are men simply because they are ideal sounding boards for mutual understanding. Without a translator, we can’t really relate to him. And yet, synthetic as it is, Chan’s charm boasts more wattage than the Vegas Strip, for now at least.
The long-faced Hewitt is less successful. A cipher whose significance in the film is to provide the only intelligible dialogue between the two protagonists, we immediately long for dubbing and subtitles. Never has Chan’s garbled grappling of the American vernacular been so preferable to his current costar’s dialogue.
Hewitt’s voice, elevated to a warbled whine, conjures the sound made when a canary gets stuck in the vacuum. And her guttural giggle, generated with robotic abruptness, makes one wonder where the batteries go, although I have my theory.
The estimable supporting cast plays to mixed results. Peter Stormare is a pleasant presence in his cameo, a variation on his foreign mad doctor as seen in Minority Repor and Armageddon. But the wonderful actor and writer Bob Balaban (Best in Show) is wasted in his role. Nobody is in their element here.
The super-agent Devlin best delivers the summation of The Tuxedo within the first twenty minutes of screen time. As he and Tong speed away from a heat-seeking skateboard with a detonator, Devlin shouts at the top of his lungs, “It’s a bomb!” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.