The True Hero of Rush Hour: Tania Johnson played by Elizabeth Peña

Updated: Oct 21, 2021




At its core, Rush Hour is about how experiencing life with other people helps us learn about ourselves and how that education can lead us to living authentically. And it’s the character Tania Johnson’s played by Elizabeth Peña, who sadly passed away in 2014, own authenticity and comfort within herself, that either purposely, or by chance helps Det. James Carter (Chris Tucker) and Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) develop their relationship and become one of the most memorable cinematic pair of friends. Tania Johnson is the true hero of Rush Hour. Johnson’s influence is seen on Carter and Lee when she not only saves the day by helping the two solve their case but helps them make a transformation that helps them begin to trust one another and themselves, to eventually become a team, which is what creates the connected feeling in the film between the two that has made Rush Hour a classic film.

The older I’ve gotten whenever I come back to Rush Hour or the sequel I still think, “why did they name these films ‘Rush Hour’”?. Before writing this I had come to think there was no reason. But recently, I watched the crime thriller the Little Things centering around a former decorated police detective named Deke, (Denzel Washington) who is offered a chance at solving a case that has haunted him for years when he’s recruited by his replacement Baxter (Rami Malek) to help solve a new mystery. When Baxter tries to convince his chief that having Deke helping is good, the chief urges him to stay away from him and reveals some of why Deke is no longer on the force. He tells Baxter, “He’s a rush hour cop on a slow moving train wreck”. When my partner and I saw this scene, me having been talking with her about my wanting to write about Johnson, we arose from our lounging positions and looked at each other. “Do you think that’s where the title of Rush Hour comes from?,” she says to me. "It sounds like it could be. That would make sense.” Weeks later we came back to this discussion after I re-watched Rush Hour a few more times. I tell her my theory, thinking of the line from Little Things and the meaning of a “rush hour cop”. My partner responds, “I think it more so refers to a cop who thinks the rules don’t apply to him, and only thinks of themselves.” A few days later, I texted my partner’s theory to my friend who works in law enforcement, who had seen both films, and he had the same theory. "Carter would have lost his job if that was real life", he tells me. Deke in the Little Things performs his job in this “rush hour” way in his former position, and during the new case. He goes off of his own feelings, wisdom, and questionable methods, operating outside of Baxter’s “by the book” methods. His goal is to clear his conscious of a mistake, not to help the investigation. Carter and Lee are similar to Washington’s character—at first.

Lee does what he thinks is best when he arrives in LA and goes against Carter, who’s following the FBI’s orders to keep Lee from their investigation of the kidnapping of Soo Young (Julia Hsu) and does not want to share the case with Carter after they meet. Like Lee, Carter does what he thinks is best towards the beginning of the film, when he shoots at his mark, Clide’s (Chris Penn) getaway car with a trunk full of explosives which puts him on the verge of suspension, or when, instead of keeping Lee hidden, starts his own investigation of Soo Young’s kidnapping.

The term “rush hour” is the perfect title for this film. The space of being so wrapped up in one’s own quest is also a space where Johnson is influential on both men's situations. Inspector Lee, in trying to return Soo Young home, and Det. Carter in being assigned serious investigations, are both effective detectives, but bring about messy and/or self destructive outcomes because their focus is on what they want from solving a case. In return, everyone else from colleagues, to friends, and family are negatively effected by their choices, and they both in the end have the potential to end up alone, focused on their work and not considerate of the chaos they’ve caused, and not working to see how they can change. Thank you to my partner and my friend for helping me solve my own mystery of why the film is called “Rush Hour”. And it is Johnson who deserves the credit for helping these two become better detectives and essentially saving the day.


It’s revealed in one of the funny but also touching moments in the film while Carter and Lee are on a stake out, that Sang (Ken Leung) , Juntao’s (Tom Wilkinson) assistant, killed Lee’s former partner, and that both Carter and Lee have both lost their fathers, both in the line of duty. The film’s plot and story pit Lee and Sang against each other, from the first moments of the film and in other places where they interact. It seems as if in Lee’s fierceness in pursuit of Sang, Sang’s anger towards Lee, and moments where the two disrupt each other's plans that Lee is hunting Sang--possibly for revenge. Along with recapturing the artifacts of his heritage, Lee seems to be motivated by the death of his partner which leads to his near obsession with Sang, and his focus on his previous cases, and not his own pain. Lee also never is too close to the people he knows, including Consul Han (Tzi Ma) who is his friend but refers to him as his commander, and Soo Young who is his friend but refers to her as one of his favorite martial arts students. Similarly, Carter’s motivation for wanting to work for the FBI comes not wanting to get too close to anyone at his job, as well as his distrust of his colleagues because of the death of his father. Both Carter and Lee remain alone and/or in trouble in good and bad outcomes, because of their lack of belief that someone will care as much as they do about doing the right thing, which keeps them from being able to make the best decisions to solve their cases.


We can see with Carter’s aspirations and the workaholism of Lee, that they are two guys who care more about the people they’re trying to help than the job or approval. But when they try to show that they don’t care, and that the job or their goals are more important, they don’t allow themselves to be who they really are, and go back into being more concerned with doing what they know, doing what works, not looking to expand. This makes them unable to think of new ways to solve a case. Near the end of the movie, the future of both men’s career’s are up in the air, and they are lost.


The two never bond and work as a team until they begin to break down their barriers and have the space and the time to confront their pain. On the surface and on a level of skillful storytelling by director Brett Ratner, and of writer Jim Kouf who wrote the screenplay based on the original story concept of Ross LaManna, the two bond over different things, and showing each other the other’s culture, (which if Rush Hour didn’t site Chan’s race and language so much, and make Carter slightly stereotypical, this bond could be seen as more humane and what it really is: a challenge to white supremacist and capitalist ideals of dealing with a fellow human being). But their bond and act of connection, happens due to Johnson’s perceptiveness and her skills on the job.


When we meet Johnson, walking into the office of the police precinct and interrupts Carter’s re-telling of the butchered deal with Clide, she is strong, confident, and unflinching in her telling the truth. “I can’t believe you went on that bust without me…” she goes on further and says, “You wonder why you’re the only cop in the department without a partner...Captain specifically said to go on that bust because you needed bomb squad back up but once again you screwed me and you screwed yourself”.



Carter’s desire to be an FBI agent is real goal for him, but it is also a way for him to move away from his past (the death of his father). Carter’s father worked for the LAPD and was killed on duty because his partner didn’t help him in time. Also, Carter knows the LAPD’s reputation in the city--“We’re the most hated cops in all America. My own mama’s ashamed of me. She tells people I’m a drug dealer. Ain't no team”, he says to Johnson in response.

The issue of the character gets brought up, and through the direction of Ratner, and the care and urgency that Peña conveys in Johnson, brings us into this issue for Carter, that goes beyond genre trope of the detective in need of a partner, that goes beyond a fierce Latina type, beyond her seeming to exist only to help Carter in life, but makes it important to the audience, that Carter, is on the brink of career sabotage and possibly, self destruction. Peña takes her character beyond the overbearing co-worker, the overbearing female partner, or love interest that her character can easily be read as, with her embodiment of Johnson. Because Peña gives just enough humanity to Johnson, you begin to care about Carter. Johnson is not written or played to be a servant to Carter, but to care about him.


Peña's performance speaks to her desires as an actress and as a person who cares about what the kinds of presentations she puts out into the world. In a 2014 interview in which Peña talks about her upbringing, her love for acting, the struggles of being a Latina actress in Hollywood, and her career, when it comes to acting and whether or not she would play stereotypes, she said, "Especially for myself, when I first started making movies, I did not want to play a single Latina character. It wasn't because I didn't want to be Latina because I am; it was because what was on the page was a 2 by 4. No dimension, it was written by somebody who had no clue, that was not a woman, that was not a woman of color, and I wasn't interested. It wasn't about not playing a Hispanic character...I wanted to play something that had substance in it." She continues and brings up the roles she's played, when she says, "The roles that I ended up playing, I've been very lucky because if it's presented to me and I see 'Oh it's a good project', my imagination kicks in, but there's no arch--there's no beginning, middle, and end, it goes nowhere. But I'm still passionate [and] I want to work with the director...and I've been very lucky to be able to have a conversation with the director and bring in the stuffing. She's 2 by 4, let's give her a head, put some eyes on it , create it. And if the director...I've been lucky, most of them have been very open, say "Yeah let's play with that," then I'm in."


There's not enough press and/or behind the scenes footage that would give insight on whether Peña and Ratner had to discuss Tania Johnson as a character, and she doesn't mention any specific characters she's played or directors she's worked with in the interview, but it's clear that Peña gave her character the right amount of humanity. Johnson, for even being a side character is memorable and its because of her self confidence, dimension Peña brings to her, and her being a crucial part of Lee and Carter's success.

The issue of Carter needing a partner becomes more vital later on when Johnson teases, yet, urges his need for teamwork, while she's in the captain's office with a few other officers joining in on the captain's call with Carter, after Carter picks up Lee from the airport. After Carter complains about having to chauffeur Lee around, Johnson says, “Congratulations Carter, looks like you found yourself a partner.” Not only does her saying this extend the issue of the film and flesh out the story, but it becomes something Carter starts to see the case and his time with Lee through. The movie at this point feels like, "we've got a story now." The issue of letting go is also something Lee deals with, when he’s forced to be with this person, Carter, who claims that he will solve the case himself. As for story, their situation now becomes about whether this relationship will work; as for the characters, both on a mission, they have to grapple with question of can they trust this other person? The dilemma of the film is set through this question, and allows the space for the two’s demons to come up, and for healing to happen.


This problem’s effect on both Carter and Lee is further shown, after the two have failed twice to return Soo Young, and Lee is about to go back to China. Carter tries to recruit Johnson to try save Soo Young. By this point, Lee is saddened enough to no longer try to help Han and his daughter and gives up, and starts to head home. At the Chinese embassy after Han relays his disappointment in him, Lee appears no longer confident, and a shell of himself. After this, Carter calls Johnson and asks for help, but at this point Johnson wants nothing to do with him, and wants to protect herself from his recklessness and almost hangs up on him before he admits to her, “You were right about me. I’m sorry... I was egotistical, I was inconsiderate, I was self centered…”. “Keep talking…”, she responds. He continues and says, “But it ain't about me anymore, it’s about the little girl…”.


After he admits this, it’s only then that Johnson decides to help him. This is one of the most pivotal scenes in the film. This simple but crucial turn relays Carter's true self and it makes us root for him even more and what makes Rush Hour timeless. The transformation is not possible without Johnson again being her secure self, and, by not letting Carter off the hook, and not letting him treat her as if she’s disposable like he does other informants and sources. His revelation doesn’t happen in this scene. It occurs at the embassy when talking with Han, and he sees the sorrow of Lee when they try to explain the situation to a saddened and fatigued Consul Han. Carter defies the FBI agents and talks to Han directly. He apologizes saying, “Consul Han, Lee would never try to jeopardize your daughter…Lee loves your daughter.” It’s one of the few times before Carter’s journey towards transformation that he tries to do something that will effectively help someone other than himself. And when Han doesn’t accept his apology, it is in his disappointment and seeing these men’s love for the young girl, that starts to come to the realization that the real honor in his work and as a person, is in reuniting Soo Young with her father, not solving the case and getting the praise.



This acceptance allows him to see clearly that he indeed needs to help Lee, and needs Lee. After talking with Johnson, Carter finds Lee on a plane ready to leave. They discuss getting back Soo Young and Carter’s pain about the death of his father, which further makes Carter deal with that past, and his pain about it which makes Lee want to join in one last time and sparks optimism in Lee to continue. Lee in this moment let's go of his distrust and judgment of Carter which allows him to be open to working with him, and to trust him. Both men, learn to and begin to trust in the people who have been there for them, instead of thinking they have to do everything alone. Carter’s transformation and Lee’s growth would not be possible without Johnson continuing to try to help Carter understand that he needs someone to be there to work in the trenches with him and help him learn that in order to get people to work with him, he needs to be his authentic self.


This importance of and the benefits of being one’s authentic self continues to show up in the film for Lee and Carter near the end. It is evidenced when the FBI catch up with Carter at the airport and offer him a job. His response is, “I’m L.A.P.D.” This is simply Carter staying at his current job, but it’s Carter claiming his roots. The same LAPD and same job that he held responsible for the death of his father--his history, and legacy, he finally feels better about accepting. It’s Carter being himself. And in return he can be apart of a community which includes Johnson that he can trust and they can fully support him. As for Lee, after his and Carter’s battle with Sang and Juntao, Lee is able to fully trust Carter. The two going on vacation together and especially traveling to Hong Kong is symbolic of Lee opening himself up letting someone new to experience life with. Originally, according to an interview Peña did for promotion of the film, Carter and Johnson were supposed to be leaving for Hong Kong as a couple and hang with Lee, but the scene was cut. Johnson’s influence is allowed to remain helpful, and doesn’t lead into the romantic, which keeps Johnson as a character away from fulfilling the trope of the assumed love a Latin woman has for a black hero or black lead like we’ve seen way too many times. If kept, in terms of Rush Hour this would have made Johnson a passive, mother-figure to Carter, instead of a comrade which adds more depth to Johnson and it's why we still remember her.


The importance of Johnson’s existence comes through even stronger in the film’s subtext when we examine the color scheme. Since Rush Hour takes place in, and the concerns of the heroes have to do with China, Chinese heritage, and Chinese culture, even when the film goes over to America, the symbolism in the colors bring a different meaning when featured in scenes.


The color red is probably the most prevalent color the character’s associate with, and its presence, and symbolism become announced when we see first see Johnson. What’s important is when in the film and in the situation red comes up. When we first see Johnson and in her first talk with Carter, Soo Young has already been kidnapped and Lee is on the way. Red in Chinese culture symbolizes several things but how it acts in Rush Hour, red symbolizes luck. After Carter has accepted the assignment to keep Lee away from Consul Han and the FBI’s investigation, we first meet Lee as he steps off the plane, to meet Carter. Lee looks as if he is hidden away, wearing a black suit and a red tie. As we go through the city with the two, Lee looks down, depressed even, at the fact that Soo Young is missing. His tie hangs from his neck surrounded in blackness. Like the red tie barely showing, he is barely holding onto hope while being shrouded in uncertainty and grief. Earlier in the film, the audience is told through Lee’s and Soo Young’s interaction that he is her protector and friend, and she, for a cop who has lost a father and partner to the job, and has become a workaholic, she brings him happiness and an example of what living is. This situation is very personal for Lee. The red here though symbolizes Lee’s optimism and hope that Soo Yung will be found--but it is a little bit.



During the case in other scenes we see the color red for example of agent Whitney’s (Rex Linn) tie. But since he is more concerned about doing a job, and in his assistance in keeping Lee out of the investigation, the red in his tie represents close to passion-- acting without consideration of others, which in this film, isn’t helpful to anyone.


Where the color red’s appearance furthers the message of luck, is in the aforementioned scene when Johnson is in Captain Deil's (Phillip Baker Hall) office teasing Carter about being tricked into his assignment. We see Johnson is wearing a red sweater as she teases Carter about the need for a partner, driving home to Carter what he needs to help him be his most authentic self right after he picks up Lee from the airport. Luck continues to flow. This message of luck continues to show up when Carter visits his cousin, Luke, played by Clifton Powell and he is dressed in an all red suit. Since he is a help to Carter and ultimately Lee by giving Carter information on who is selling explosives in LA, the color of red takes on the symbol of luck, and his info acts as a guide for the two towards Soo Yung, and to the explosives. It is also a moment for Carter to depend on his family member he knows is involved in crime and he must put his trust in people he wants to eventually get away from. The color of red shows up again near the end of the film when Johnson, Lee, and Carter attend Consul Han’s speech at the Chinese Heritage celebration. Before this, Johnson is the key again in helping the two get closer to finding Soo Yung and Sang. Lee and Carter visit Johnson to ask her about an object they’ve picked up off of Sang after the two encounter and try to chase Sang while trying to help the FBI bring Soo Yung home. Johnson is at the precinct doing a demolition practice when Carter distracts her and she fails a test. When she leaves the room and on her way to back to her life, Carter asks what the item is and she, with ease tells him it could be a remote that can control different kinds of explosives including a type which Carter happens to be looking for. Johnson’s knowledge gives Carter the idea to seek out a connection that leads he and Lee closer to solving the case.




The fourth most important appearance of red is at the Chinese Heritage Expo. Johnson has joined Carter and Lee on their mission and when, at the expo Carter and Lee disrupt Juntao and the FBI’s plans for the transaction by clearing the space in order to find Soo Yung, Juntao reveals he has strapped a bomb to the girl that is set detonate if the money exchange is threatened. After Carter sneaks out and beats up a guy guarding the van Soo Yung is in, he drives the van into the building causing enough chaos to get Johnson to Soo Yung and the bomb. In one of the film’s most pivotal and memorable moments, Johnson is put on the spot to save the girl. Relying on her training, and expertise, and confidence even in the face of death, made relatable through Peña’s performance she uses a trick to remember which wire to cut by singing a lullaby: “Roses are Red, Violets, are Blue” while going back and forth from which wire to cut. She sings, “Sugar is sweet...and so are you..”, and she continues and cuts the red wire which disarms the bomb and saves Soo Young. Eventually the bomb is detonated away from people, the villains’ plans are thwarted.



Afterwards, Soo Young is back with Consul Han and later on, Lee and Carter are heroes going on a vacation. But, again, it is Johnson who makes their thwarting of Juntao and Sang possible, and with director Ratner’s placement of the color of red, he further suggests that Johnson is the key for Lee and Carter to solve the case and to create a friendship. She was able to save Soo Yung and return her to her father, and at the same time allow Lee and Carter time to stop an explosion and end Juntao and Sang’s theft of the Chinese artifacts. Tania Johnson is the real hero of Rush Hour. And like a true hero, in the scene where Han, Lee and Soo Yung reunite outside of the building, Johnson is in the background sitting on the end of a fire truck smiling at the picturesque view of this reunited family, and in Peña's body language, she shows that Johnson doesn't need praise, but that she is satisfied with doing a good job.


But the framing in this scene where everyone is reunited, and how it came together is a bit troubling. With Peña’s position in the frame it seems as if Ratner subjects her character to the background which one might expect from a side character in a film, but Peña is very small in the frame, and throughout the film she’s mostly framed like she actually matters. Being that what was supposed to be the next scene: Johnson and Carter as a couple, Johnson’s importance would have been reduced to just chatter, and would have reinforced Johnson as a side character, and as woman of color in a thankless role, which goes against Ratner’s implication of her importance. It’s careless; however Peña is still able to shine. Looking at Peña as Johnson smiling and her satisfaction in successfully reuniting loved ones, in the scene, the happiness of Johnson comes through in Peña’s dedication to craft and her commitment to bringing forth Tania Johnson.

At the end of her 2014 interview, when talking about legacy, Peña says, "I think self respect is the biggest thing. I think sometimes when we get desperate or anxious, we start to surrender what made us whole in the first place. I think if you can take...because there will be some repercussions sometimes...but I think in the long run, the best thing to do is to have self respect and not allow the world to put limitations on you."


Elizabeth Peña as Johnson in her last scene in the film is heart warming, and makes you feel like you’re in the presence of a true heroine.




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