Motor Mouth Man

IT'S NOT UNUSUAL FOR A comedian to wriggle into a dress for a laugh, but it's doubtful that anyone has done it with the ferocious intensity Chris Tucker displayed opposite Bruce Willis in "The Fifth Element." He played the intergalactic talk-show host Ruby Rhod as if he were the demonic offspring of a Dennis Rodman-Jim Carrey-Little Richard menage, spitting out high-pitched one-liners at the speed of light and pausing only to punctuate his sentences with a bumblebee-like "Bzzzzz!" His obnoxious, bug-eyed, sashaying performance proved to be the summer's most outrageous special effect--and one that split critics and audiences right down the middle. Tucker is an acquired taste.

Like many black comics, he was propelled out of obscurity in 1998 by appearances on HBO's "Def Comedy Jam." That landed him small parts in "House Party III" and "Panther," but it was the 1995 'hood comedy "Friday" that caught people's attention. Audiences showed up to see the top-billed rapper Ice Cube, but they exited talking about Tucker; his hilariously profane turn as a drug dealer who'd rather smoke up than sell propelled the lowbudget film to a $80 million gross. Hollywood rewarded him with the showy part in "The Fifth Element" and the lead in the just-released "Money Talks."

"Money Talks," which Tucker dubs "the black 'Fugitive'," doesn't have an ounce of originality. Its plot is a remix of past Eddie Murphy hits like "48HRS." and "Beverly Hills Cop." But director Brett Ratner keeps the film moving briskly, with an entertaining verve that eludes most Tony Scott wanna-bes. And he wisely keeps the focus on Tucker, who combines Martin Lawrence's aggression with Will Smith's charm to create his own irrepressibly irritating bad boy.

In person Tucker, 24, is so soft-spoken and laid-back that you wonder if he's got an evil twin who wears the skirts. Sporting a black Adidas track suit, he slouches down in a chair in his New York hotel suite as if behind the wheel of a lowrider, replacing the helium-laced squeal of his characters with the drawl of his native Atlanta. Tucker starts off trying to be blase about the people he's working with on Quentin Tarantino's upcoming "Jackie Brown"-- stars like Robert De Niro ("real cool"), Samuel L. Jackson ("funny as hell") and blaxploitation queen Pam Grier ("she still fine"). He warms up when asked which comics he admires ("Richard Pryor is the king to me, but I respect Bill Cosby for his business sense"). But Tucker finally catches fire when the topic switches to his costar in next year's action comedy "Rush Hour." "I slapped Jackie Chan," he says, deadpan. "He said something I didn't like, so I beat him up. They broke it up before it got too bad. He called me to say he was sorry, that he didn't know I was so quick, and he would never disrespect me." Now, that's more like the Chris Tucker we expect.

What people may not expect is his dramatic aspirations, but unlike many comics, he actually has the chops to fulfill them. He brought out the wry pathos of a heroin-addicted vet in the Hughes brothers' 1995 Vietnam epic "Dead Presidents," and he plans to do more such roles in the future. His newfound clout in Hollywood earned him the power to replace the original director of "Money Talks" with Ratner, a music-video maker, who was more open to Tucker's improvisational style. The comic was also able to lure veteran actors like Patti Sorvino and Charlie Sheen. Says Tucker: "Charlie told me, 'Once you stop having fun, that's when you have a downfall, because you stop the magic from happening'." Career advice from Charlie Sheen.? Well, apart from that, we're willing to put our money where Tucker's mouth is.