"He doesn't have a consumed sense of self-importance — which I think, by comparison to other people who are similarly successful is, if not unique, at least unusual," says Toback. And indeed, when you talk to Ratner, you never feel that he's putting on an act or trying to convince you he's something that he's not. He's one of those people for whom the expression "high on life" seems to have been invented — which, in Ratner's case, may be the literal truth, given that this confessed party boy swears off alcohol and all drugs (including coffee). Can Ratner be brash? Certainly. Does he enjoy being the center of attention? Without question. Does he, during one of our meetings, receive a party invite from Paris Hilton on his iPhone? I'd be lying if I said otherwise. But he's the first to poke fun at himself, and the last thing he seems interested in is wasting any time countering his detractors.
"The answer could be, "They're all jealous,' or, "They're all envious,' or, "They don't really get me,'" says Ratner. "People criticize movies that are in the pop culture, but that's who I am. The thing about the Defamer guy is that he'd be much worse if I let it bother me, if I called him up and said, "If you write one more thing about me ... " I simply don't care."
What does matter to Ratner is that his films seem expressive of his personality. "The directors I admire, like the Coen brothers and Scorsese — they're in their films," he says. So too is Ratner in his, for anyone who wants to find him. Perhaps not so much in X-Men: The Last Stand, the noisiest and least necessary in a series whose popularity has eluded me since Day One. But Ratner is everywhere in Money Talks, in the underrated caper picture After the Sunset, and (perhaps most of all) in the Rush Hour movies. He's there in the preponderance of classic R&B and hip-hop on their soundtracks; in their exuberant celebrations of beautiful women, fast cars and other assorted bling; and in their conscious homages to the movies that made Ratner want to become a director in the first place.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, he's an unrepentant "70s nostalgia junkie who cites the late Hal Ashby as his favorite filmmaker and who — against the wishes of the studio — hired film composer Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon) to work on Money Talks and four of his subsequent features.
But Ratner's style is equally informed by the iconic action comedies of the 1980s — movies like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run that Ratner saw in the company of his maternal grandfather, a Cuban-born Jew whose broken English made him an ideal spectator for stories primarily told through visual means. As much as anything he would eventually learn at NYU, those films gave Ratner his appreciation for snappy comic banter and clean, concise action executed with a minimum of editing, camera movement and visual effects. Today, it's that old-school approach that distinguishes Ratner's movies from those of Bay, McG and the other prominent music-video alumni whose attention-deficient aesthetics have become the common denominator of the 21st-century blockbuster.
"In an action movie, I don't want to move the camera too much, because the movement should be within the frame," Ratner says. "The same goes for comedy: You don't want to push in for a joke; it's plenty in a medium shot. Watch my jokes; they're never in close-up. If the audience feels the camera, it's horrible."
A week after my initial visit, the Rush Hour 3 shoot has relocated to Stage 16 of the Culver Studios, where production designer Ed Verreaux's elaborate replica of the Jules Verne restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower is strewn with broken chairs, tableware and other evidence of the climactic fight sequence that takes place here. Parts of the scene were already shot at the actual location, where limited access and France's restrictive 35-hour work week greatly hampered progress. Today, the movie's Asian villainess, played by Japanese actress Youki Kudoh (Memoirs of a Geisha), is standing on a beam outside the restaurant's windows, framed against a cycloramic backdrop of the Paris cityscape. In her hands, she holds a rope that suspends the Chinese actress Jingchu Zhang, who is making her American acting debut as Rush Hour 3's kidnapped damsel-in-distress — a grown-up version of the Chinese ambassador's daughter whose kidnapping set the first Rush Hour in motion. Ratner has good notes for Kudoh, who keeps missing her mark at a key moment in the scene. When she gets it right, he gives her a big hug.
As the crew prepares the next setup, Ratner tells me that, not unlike the James Bond movies, the Rush Hour series is governed by certain inviolable mandates. One of them, as with Bond, is "a hot girl as a villain and a hot girl as an ally." Another is location, location, location. "Because these are fish-out-of-water comedies, you need to be in a place where the language is not the [characters'] first language," he says. "In the first Rush Hour, Jackie came to L.A. and he was the fish-out-of-water. In the second one, Chris went to Hong Kong. This time, where was the best opportunity for comedy? We could have gone to Moscow — that might have worked." But France, says Ratner, with its historically knotty love-hate relationship with America: "That was the perfect place for comedy."
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