The Green Hornet (2011) Reviewed

When I heard that The Green Hornet was being made into a major studio feature with Seth Rogan attached, I had a bad feeling. When I heard that Michel Gondry was going to direct, I had a better, though still slightly unsettled feeling. When I saw the first trailer (-what? Two years ago?!) I decided to stop worrying, hoping or wondering about The Green Hornet. Good or bad, it was clear that this Green Hornet wasn’t going to have much in common with the short-lived 1966 ABC series I’d dug up and fallen in love with five years ago. So I kept an open mind and wondered if  maybe –just maybe– Rogen had an action movie leading man somewhere inside him. (Plenty of room there, after all.) and Gondry had what it takes to redefine the superhero movie.

It was difficult to imagine Rogen as wealthy newspaper publisher, Britt Reid, or the Green Hornet, his masked fedora’d vigilante alter ego. Rogen’s breezy brand of doofus humor has consistently waffled between legit funny and annoyingly self-aware and until GH he was untested as an action hero. (Though it’s worth mentioning he did have a few moments in Pineapple Express that made him seem capable of…well, running I guess.)

On TV, Reid (Van Williams) was already established as the owner/publisher of the Daily Sentinel. Like many fictional heroes, Reid knew that being close to the news meant keeping tabs on what’s happening in…um, New Metrogothamopolis.  This meant the Hornet had the best of both worlds: Bruce Wayne’s gazillionaire resources combined with Clark Kent and Peter Parker’s inside scoops. His unique hook was that, on the record, The Green Hornet was a wanted criminal mastermind who fought bad guys from outside the law by posing as one of them. He was assisted in his crime fighting by his chauffer/servant/sidekick Kato, famously played by Bruce Lee. (Incidentally, in other parts of the world The Green Hornet was known as The Kato Show, which: awesome!) Additionally, a vigilante-friendly DA and Reid’s hubba-hubba secretary helped him protect his secret identity and subvert the law.

The TV Reid was serious, cunning, smart and vigilant and his alter ego was a competent fighter who didn’t struggle when it came to keeping up with his sidekick. Rogen’s Reid is more comic relief than steel-jawed man of action. He’s a self-centered, over-privileged party boy who isn’t even involved with the Sentinel until he inherits it from his recently murdered father (Tom Wilkinson). Kato’s role,  on the other hand, is redrawn and punched up. John Chou does an admirable job of coloring in what had previously been a fairly one-dimensional sidekick. (In a fair world, his portrayal of Kato would be a star-making performance.) Instead of being Britt’s bitch, he’s outspoken and smart. Instead of being a butler he’s the Reid-family mechanic and personal barista(?).

Britt, knowing Kato worked closely with his late father, pumps the Chinese gearhead for insight into his old man. Turns out the elder Reid had assigned Kato to a series of  secret projects, including the development of a heavily armored Chrysler Imperial. The two become fast friends and while out for a bromantic joy-ride (capped with the vandalism of a statue honoring Britt’s dead dad) they stumble upon, and successfully foil, a late-night urban mugging. Being heroes makes them feel “awesome” and that’s evidently all it takes to prod them toward the idea of becoming masked crime-fighters. Reid has the money for the superhero overhead, and Kato has the unparalleled skills in both the garage and martial arts, so why the hell not?

This Green Hornet won’t exactly be recognizable to fans of the TV and radio shows, but it’s an interesting take on the basic premise and consistently entertaining on its own terms. Most of the fun comes from watching Rogen react to the more-than-a-little-ridiculous super-human abilities of Kato. (The TV Hornet always seemed to take Kato a little too much for granted for my taste. He was, after all, Bruce fuckin’ Lee doing amazing Bruce fuckin’ Lee stuff! Meanwhile, the Green Hornet had a great hat and a gun that opened locked doors.) Making the cinematic Kato as important to the story as the Hornet was a smart decision. Chou’s Kato doesn’t break up his day of continually saving the Green Hornet’s ass by being his soft-spoken, white-jacketed butler. He’s an equal partner who designs and builds the Black Beauty (the Hornet’s “rolling aresenal”) and invents and constructs all of the super-cool weapons and gadgets. Topped off with his signature gift for hand-to-hand combat, and you’ve got a Kato that has much more to offer than his boss.

Utilizing The Kato Show strategy works in the movie’s favor. If you’re not going to do a literal take on a previously established pop-culture icon, playing with the character dynamic and adding some (mostly effective) comedy is an admirable enough route to explore.  (The Hornet’s prior incarnations played things pretty straight. Despite sharing an hour block of adventure with the Adam West Batman series, as well as the same production company, and “same bat-time, same bat-channel” announcer, the TV Hornet was a more grown up counter-point to the dynamic duo’s campy excess. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Batman/Green Hornet cross-over episodes in which bad-ass Lee is forced to go toe-to-toe with pipsqueak, Burt Ward.) Rogen is due praise as the co-screenwriter for infusing the Hornet mythology with easy-going humor. (Though some superfans might consider it Hornet heresy, I for one enjoyed watching Rogen and Chou rocking out and singing along to Gangster’s Paradise as they hit the streets for their first official night as crime fighters.) The jokes don’t detract from the action or play so tongue-in-cheek that you can’t engage with the story. The tone is playful without being silly or over-the-top; a difficult balance to achieve, especially in the superhero genre. (Isn’t that right, Kick-Ass?)

Sadly, one of the movie’s glaring omissions is a competent villain. I understand the need to lower the bar so that our wet-behind-the-ears heroes have a fighting chance, but Christoph Waltz, so sinister and compelling (and Oscar-worthy) in Inglourious Basterds, appears here as the most impotent movie bad guy in recent history. Even his introduction, in which he dispatches s a new-school drug dealing club owner (a game but misused James Franco in an uncredited cameo) doesn’t inspire much confidence in his ability to carry the antagonist end of the story. Waltz’s Chudnofsky, an LA crime lord hell-bent on bringing all the city’s gangs under his singular big-tent control,  becomes less menacing as the movie unspools so that by the time we reach the otherwise admirable action climax, it’s fairly clear that the inept gangsters don’t stand a chance against…well, against Kato and the Black Beauty mostly.

I should also mention that Cameron Diaz is woefully miscast as Reid’s spunky-smart secretary, Lenore Case, who functions as the “brains” of a team she’s not even a part of until the last few scenes. (That’s right: “Diaz”…”the brains”…DOES NOT COMPUTE!) Why the hell do people keep casting her in roles like this? For one thing she looks old enough to be Rogen’s mom. And while I do appreciate the script’s inclusion of one surprising age joke at her expense, this is one arena in which the movie simply cannot compete with the TV show. I mean…JUSTLOOKATWENDE WAGNER as the same character. If not for fear of seeing her typecast, can you imagine if this role had belonged to Christina Hendricks?

Despite these gripes, GH‘s biggest disappointment doesn’t stem from the villain, the story, or any of the performances. The monumental let-down is that director Gondry doesn’t leave enough of his own mark on the movie. My expectations for a superhero flick helmed by the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep and all of Bjork’s most amazing videos, were waaaay too high. Despite a few cleverly constructed fight sequences and innovative use of  split-screens, GH is easily the most straightforward, commercial and conventional-looking title on Gondry’s resume. Many of the visuals, particularly in the action sequences, do look sharp, but I can’t help thinking that the studio put a leash on Gondry early on to keep everything cineplex-friendly. (But if that’s your plan, why the hell hire a director like Gondry in the first place? Maybe Tony Scott was busy.)

I won’t be surprised if GH, a movie once slated to be a holiday blockbuster, ends up sequel-less and forgotten after its initial run. Too bad, because I’m guessing that given a chance, most kids would love it.  But banking on a sixties TV show or an old-time radio show to connect with the youth demographic is a shaky proposition. (Ask The Shadow and The Phantom if you don’t believe me. I guess the studio will have to deep-six those Our Miss Brooks and Jack Benny Show projects for now).

The final verdict is that the Green Hornet could have been a helluva’ lot worse. It’s fun and disposable with enough satisfying moments to justify its existence. For the record, I’ll take Gondry’s chipper, hang-dog vibe over Tim Burton’s over-stylized gothi-tude or Christopher Nolan’s bleak urban-decay obsession any day.

**1/2 – two and a half stars out of four

PS – I avoided the 3D version of GH for two reasons. First, it was another 3D retro-fit meaning it wasn’t filmed with 3D in mind. Secondly, 3D movies are expensive as hell. I’ve ignored these factors at my own peril before. (Without 3D, Piranha 3D would have been just as awesome and Alice in Wonderland would have been just as unwatchable.)

~ by willnepper on January 20, 2011.

3 Responses to “The Green Hornet (2011) Reviewed”

  1. Now you make me lie in dread that this screenplay for “Baby Snooks and Daddy” was a total waste of the last three years of my life.

    Way to kick a guy, Nepper.

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