My sidekick is cooler than me.
The Green Hornet character has been around since the 1930s, and he has shown up off and on in pop culture throughout the decades. His debut was on the radio, and from there, the character appeared in matinee serials, pulp novels, comic books, and a 1960s TV series starring Van Williams and action superstar Bruce Lee.
The character is memorable for a few reasons. First, he’s got a cool look, a cool car, and cool gadgets. Second, his M.O. is to pretend to be a criminal mastermind in order to catch real criminal masterminds. Third and arguably most important, he’s one of the few heroes whose sidekick is more famous than he is. Kato, the Green Hornet’s chauffer/partner/BFF, is so revered overseas that the ’60s series was renamed The Kato Show for foreign markets. Today, the “Kato mask” has become an iconic symbol of heroes and tough guys in numerous Hong Kong action flicks.
Still, despite the Green Hornet’s fame, he’s never quite reached household name status of his 1930s contemporaries, like Batman or the Lone Ranger. For the inevitable big-screen version, a number of famous names attempted involvement over the years, including Kevin Smith (Dogma) and Steven Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). The project eventually ended up in the hands of French filmmaker Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep) with comedy star Seth Rogen (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) as the title character. With these unconventional choices, the film finally made it to the screen.
Britt Reed (Rogen) is the hard-partying, carefree son of a millionaire media mogul. When his father dies, Britt finds himself with even less direction in his life than before. He befriends his father’s mechanic Kato (Jay Chou, Kung Fu Dunk), and the two of them hit the town for some drunken mischief, ending with fighting a bunch of crooks. Feeling a rush from crimefighting, Britt uses Kato’s mechanical genius and impressive martial arts skills to help him adopt a new identity—the Green Hornet. Elsewhere, a ruthless man named Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds), sets his sights in controlling all the crime in the city, turning the city’s gangs against each other. As the Green Hornet and Kato pose as criminals, Chudnofsky takes notice and swears he will hunt them down.
We fancy-pants film critics like to whine and complain about tone. When the tone is off, or at least inconsistent, we always point it out. Why? When the tone doesn’t work, it takes you out of the movie. The Green Hornet’s tone is all over the map. Sure, it’s an action-comedy, but it almost always leans more toward the funny than it does the thrills. Fans of superhero adventure might be turned off by the constant jokes, and fans of Rogen’s brand of comedy might be turned off by the standard superhero origin stuff wedged in among the shtick. You might argue that it’s a spoof of the superhero genre, but it takes itself just seriously enough to keep that from happening. Is this a crimefighting adventure flick or an outrageous comedy? By trying too hard to be both, the movie ends up being neither.
Always a visual stylist, Gondry brings a ton of creative flair to the flick. The color green, naturally, is everywhere, present in key ways in key scenes, offset at other times with a lot of yellow/gold lighting. So it’s a good-looking movie. More importantly, the movie proves that an artsy French dude can also shoot blockbuster action. The final third of the movie is an extended chase that ends with a fight scene among generous mass destruction, and it’s some genuinely exciting stuff. Gondry’s odd sensibilities manifest in other ways, though. This is evident when Britt puts the pieces together regarding the villain’s scheme, and we’re treated to strange dream imagery involving strange objects floating over and being dropped onto flowers, among other things. Is this the best way to illustrate Britt’s thought process? We look inside the-privileged-rich-boy-turned-hero’s head and we see…a pretty flower garden? Really?
Similarly, whenever Kato jumps into action to make with the martial arts mayhem, Gondry takes us into “Kato vision,” in which we see the fight from Kato’s point of view. Everything slows down, and Kato sees weapons and/or weak spots glowing in red. Honestly, it looks like all those video game boss battles where the player has to hit the boss at a certain spot at a certain time when it glows red. Part of me would rather just see Kato kick ass without slow-mo and funky lights, but part of me appreciates that they tried something a little different.
Like a lot of folks, I was skeptical when I learned Seth Rogen had been cast. Then, when he made the talk show rounds, he showed off his physical transformation for the role, in which he lost a lot of flab and gained a lot of muscle. I thought, “This Green Hornet thing might work.” But, no. Rogen, who also has a co-screenwriter and executive producer credit, plays the Green Hornet as “Seth Rogen.” In most movies like this, there’s that moment when the goofball main character wakes up to what’s really important and becomes a true hero. There were about five times when I thought this would happen, only to have Rogen carry on with his usual wisecracking schlub act.
Chou is somewhat wooden as Kato, but part of that could be the super-serious nature of the character, the Felix to Rogen’s Oscar. His best moments are during the middle part of the film, in which Kato shows some anger over being treated as a mere sidekick instead of an equal—or better—than Britt. Cameron Diaz (Knight and Day) shows up as the requisite love interest. She has a few interesting moments in which she reveals her character is smarter than she lets on, but I didn’t get any sense of chemistry between her and Rogen. Christoph Waltz does the generic movie gangster thing, showing little of the charm and/or menace he brought to Inglourious Basterds. He does what he can to give the character some quirks, but on paper the guy is just another power-hungry baddie with little to distinguish him from the long line of other power-hungry movie baddies. Reliable actors James Edward Olmos, David Harbour, and Tom Wilkinson try to bring some heavier drama to the film, only to have their work bounce off of Rogen’s jokey antics.
As noted above, the movie is bright and colorful, and the DVD shows off all those colors expertly, with a clean, clear picture. The audio rocks as well, making the most of the explosions and gunfire, as well as the many songs on the soundtrack and the solid score by James Newton Howard. Extras include a commentary by Gondry, Rogen and other producers, along with some short featurettes and a gag reel.
Am I being too hard on this movie? It’s possible. A lot of the jokes did elicit laughs from me, and the action, especially the big finale, was truly rousing. Best of all, the movie zips along at a fast pace, and is never boring. Despite its flaws, The Green Hornet manages some fun. Oh, and the car. The car is awesome.
How disappointing is it when a movie could have been great, but instead ends up merely OK? I have nothing against taking an action-comedy approach to The Green Hornet, but the balance between the comedy and the action is off, and that made for a frustrating watch. Yes, the movie entertains, but it’s disposable entertainment. It could have been so much more.