Who is the Green Hornet really?
Britt Reid, the intrepid journalist of the golden age of radio was Batman before there was a Batman. He was spiritual sibling to Lamont Cranston, the shadowy mystique replaced by an exotic Asian sidekick, Kato. Reid even had an impressive lineage; his great uncle was the pulp hero, The Lone Ranger.
Non-geek audiences, if they remember the Hornet at all, may recall that his short lived 50’s television series was the program that gave Bruce Lee his big start. So, the character carries some great history even if it’s mostly obscure to the general population. Unfortunately, the new Hornet offers very little to Britt and his legacy.
This project has been in production forever, with directors and actors regularly dropping in and out with a worrisome regularity. That it finally moved forward with Rogen was troubling, but when the whimsical and inventive Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) also came onboard it gave me hope. Unfortunately, Gondry’s more fantastical sensibilities are held in check and although he gives the film a kinetic energy, it’s Rogen’s deconstruction of the character —hell, let’s call it demolition—that sinks The Green Hornet.
Here is a movie where the super hero is neither very super nor heroic. Instead, it’s like an SNL skit where Rogen’s default slacker persona decides to try his hand at being a vigilante. Sure, Seth’s Britt is still heir to an idealistic newspaper that specializes in bold journalism, but for most of the film he’s playing a spoiled trust fund baby moping on about how his deceased father (Tom Wilkinson) was such a jerk. It’s an odd approach to the Hornet from an outside perspective, until you realize it serves as a fanboy coup to shoehorn Rogen in as the titular hero.
What made the original Britt compelling is the way in which he used his moonlighting gig as a faux criminal to give direction to his news empire, which he wielded as a force for good. Almost all other superheroes use their dayjobs as decoys, but Reid’s was ultimately his greatest tool. For a film set in the twilight of the age of printed media, Rogen’s Hornet is oddly more concerned with pampering it’s man child than exploring this bygone fantasy of moral power focused through the media-reporting outlet.
Jay Chou as the resourceful and steadfast Kato is the film’s brightest spot and really, why not? Rogen might continually demean him as the sidekick, but he’s the one with the bad-ass martial arts skills and the creator and driver of the tricked-out, weapon-packed car, The Black Beauty. Although Kato’s tv persona was both the butler and the sidekick, the radio incarnation of Kato proved to be the real backbone of the Hornet’s plan. He wasn’t just the driver, he was the inventor, and the better of the two fighters. He was the brains and braun and his commitment spurred on Reid’s resolve. In 2010, one would hope that Rogen and company would read the writing on the wall, and make Kato the film’s focus. If Gondry wanted to go truly audacious he would have Reid suffer death or kidnapping early on and leave the film in Chou’s capable hands. Alas, they go a different, less interesting and infinitely more irritating direction.
Rogen’s Britt verbally abuses Kato regularly and eventually escalates that abuse into physicality, brought on by vain jealousy. Theirs is a relationship that spends most of it’s time with Rogen ironically bossing about Chou and treating him like a second-rate playmate. It does Britt no favors as a character and it also shoots the movie’s one virtue in the foot; we like Kato and root for him, which makes Reid little more than a distraction. When Reid finally goads him on and then strikes Kato over something idiotically shallow, we get one of the few truly crowd pleasing moments Hornet offers; Chou beating the living hell out of Rogen for several long moments.
The rest of Green Hornet borders perfunctory. Gondry is trying for comic-book pop art, but so much of the movie feels generic and unfocused. Cameron Diaz shows up smiling from ear to ear, but isn’t a love interest or a powerful ally or anything more than fawned over eye candy. Christoph Waltz is completely dismissable as a grim but sensitive villain, whose one idiosyncracy grows stale after his opening scene. The only thing anyone will like remember is that he’s got a double-barreled handgun. The rest of the cast gets lost in the shuffle and overshadowed by Rogen’s buffoonery. The soundtrack is so derivative that it often sounds like temp music used as a holding place until something better comes along.
Visually, comic-book movie fans can forget that hope of getting something epic or properly theatrical. Despite the presence of Gondry, Hornet is strung together like a glossy TV pilot that got upgraded to theatrical status so someone could charge extra for 3D. From this perspective then, is there any reason at all to see The Green Hornet ? Depending on your bent and interest, maybe.
Although Rogen plays hell with the character and the early going feels far too familiar, when Gondry gets to anything involving The Hornet’s night-time misadventures the film springs to giddy life. The face-to-face fight scenes have a bit too much slo-mo punch and kick but the episodes themselves, featuring Reid and Kato taking on different criminal elements, are suprisingly rousing. Gondry has taken notes from those old serialized cliffhangers and scenes like the one where the heroes are buried alive inside the Black Beauty have a feel of danger and excitement not found elsewhere. He also has much fun with the ways in which Reid and Kato get a trial by fire in the education of being a crimefighter.
There’s a long, protracted chase sequence—involving the Black Beauty—that brings to mind The Blues Brothers and keeps topping itself for zany action. For those of us who showed up for a good-natured thrill ride about heroic derring-do, these scenes almost make the admission price worth it. Alas, a cool car and super style can only cover so many sins. This Hornet truly is better fit for the small screen.