A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2011

GREEN HORNET jjj

2011, PG-13, 108 mins.

 

Britt / Green Hornet: Seth Rogen / Kato: Jay Chou / Lenore Case: Cameron Diaz / Mr. Reid: Tom Wilkinson / Chudnofsky: Christoph Waltz / Scanlon: David Harbour / Axford:  Edward James Olmos

Directed by Michel Gondry / Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, based on the radio serial.

SCREENED IN
3D

After a lifespan that predated the creation of BATMAN and continues to the present day, it's amazing that The Green Hornet has never headlined his own feature film...until now.  The American pulp hero and masked crime fighter was conceived by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker in 1936 – two years before Bob Kane’s much more famous Caped Crusader made his comic debut – and since the Hornet’s introduction on radio he has seen permutations in the form of 1940’s movie serials, a famous (but short lived) TV series in the 1960’s, and many comic book incarnations that began 70 years ago and carry on to the present day.   

Arguably, the character’s most long standing impact on pop culture was during its very brief TV series run, which was made all-the-more noteworthy for featuring a then relatively unknown Bruce Lee as the martial arts dynamo-sidekick, Kato.  Yet, since the show’s inception and ultimate demise, a big budget feature film of the exploits of Hornet and Kato has eluded many filmmakers.  There have been many recent attempts to adapt the franchise to the big screen dating back to 1992, during which a smorgasbord of directors and actors were attached and then left the project (Kevin Smith made a run at the script until he balked at directing it a few years ago).  From the ashes of the latest attempts emerged a very unlikely team to bring the Hornet’s silver screen adventures to final fruition: French filmmaking auteur Michel Gondry (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (SUPERBAD). 

The conglomeration of Rogen and Goldberg (known for raunchy comedies) with Gondry (known for his abstract visual style and odd choice of subject matter) makes, at first glance, for a tremendously odd union of sorts.  Yet, the sensibilities of all the parties mentioned seem to flow rather fluidly together to create a $100 million HORNET film that safely traverses between a comic book adaptation, a bromance comedy, a high octane action film, and a fairly engaging and visual inventive visceral experience.   The divergent tones that THE GREEN HORNET attempts here may not be what most audiences are expecting from their comic book fare, but I for one modestly appreciated its off-center creative choices that neither makes the film a campy farce nor a deeply solemn or introspective investigation into the super hero psyche.  What we get is a comic film that’s well oiled for laughs and exhilarating adventure, which in due course makes Gondry’s film work well on the level of frivolous fun. 

Like most introductory super hero films, THE GREEN HORNET is an origin story:  Britt Reid (the unfathomably cast Seth Rogen) is a 28-year-old partying, boozing, and self-centered slacker that is the son of a respected newsman and publisher, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), whose paper, The Daily Sentinel, is a trusted and reliable source of daily events.  Whereas James is a noble minded, sternly by-the-books and career minded entrepreneur, his son is, for lack of a better word, a flake with no ambitions whatsoever.  Things change quickly for Britt when he discovers that his father suddenly dies due to an allergic reaction to a bee sting and James’ death leads to not only awkward levels of mourning for Britt (he never truly got along with the man), but it also leads to him firing all of his former staff. 

He does re-hire one person in particular: the mechanic/expert coffee maker Kato (Jay Chou, perceptibly struggling with the English language, but exuding a disarmingly charming and easy-going presence nonetheless) after he realizes that only Kato is capable of making him a perfect cup of morning brew.  As the two share some time together Britt begins to realize, to his utter astonishment, that Kato is an expert in hand-to-hand combat and is a highly skilled and industrious inventor of gadgets and souped up automobiles.  After a rowdy night – where Britt and Kato remove the head of a statue of James as a form of dealing with their bitter feelings towards the man that is followed by Kato taking on several nearby muggers with his gravity defying kung fu skills – Britt has an epiphany: he decides that he and Kato should pose as masked vigilantes that, outwardly, would appear to be criminals in order to infiltrate the real criminals and stop their vile exploits.   

The pair don masks and arm themselves within the bulletproof and deviously tricked out Chrysler Impala (complete with red-light camera destroying missiles and LP player) called “The Black Beauty” so they can  engage in their clandestine mission to rid the city of crime.  They eventually lock horns with a Russian mobster named Benjamin Chudnofsky (just as it sounds, played by INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS villain Christoph Waltz), and they attempt to get into his secret inner circle in order to break him down from the inside.  Britt tries to get Chudnofsky’s attention by using his newly acquired Daily Sentinel to publish stories about how The Green Hornet and Kato have been thwarting his criminal empire.  Within no time, Chudnofsky becomes suspicious of the Hornet’s real motives and the film culminates with an obligatory showdown between them. 

Seth Rogen – a performer that’s physically pudgier and more amusingly lowbrow than what many people may see as a rightful choice to play a super hero – is perhaps the most peculiar and potentially polarizing casting of a comic book hero since, say, Michael Keaton in the first BATMAN.  Rogen is certainly more slimmed down and well tailored than he ever has been before, but he wisely never plays the dual role of Britt/ Hornet seriously at all.  Rather wisely, Rogen plays the role mostly for hearty laughs and never makes Britt come off as remotely heroic or daring.  In fact, part of the slyness of the film is how childish, flat footed, undisciplined, and ill-mannered Rogen makes his incarnation of the Hornet.  Even though Britt is arguably as rich and powerful as Bruce Wayne, he’s a total nincompoop and bewildered imbecile as his masked persona that would have no vigilante career whatsoever if it were not for the skills and know-how of his sidekick.  Hilariously, Britt knows that he could not pull off the Hornet persona without Kato, even though he makes outlandish attempts to secure all credit for the achievements.  THE GREEN HORNET is one of the first super hero films to portray its title character as an arrogant, self-serving, and moronic douche bag. 

The film is also irreverently and unexpectedly hilarious at times:  There is a deeply funny moment during the aftermath of a botched test of a gas pellet gun by Britt where he later realizes that he shot himself unconscious…for eleven days.  This is followed by a later scene where Kato announces that his new gas gun only places victims into an unconscious state for a few hours and culminates with Brit taking a bit of fiendish revenge on his sidekick.  There is also merriment to be found with the main villain himself, as the film has a nice running gag where Waltz’s baddie struggles with people that can’t pronounce his name and is really disturbed when people question his methods for their lack of intimidation (he pathetically yearns to be feared so much that he demands to called “Bloodnofsky”).  He also occupies the funniest scene in the film during an opening moment where he has a standoff with a young drug kingpin (played by a former Seth Rogen co-star, in a surprise cameo) where he responds to accusations that he’s a "dinosaur."  Watch how Waltz plays his response for maximum comic effect. 

For as eccentrically funny as THE GREEN HORNET is, the film is no slouch when it comes to action.  Gondry paints the film with a vivaciously inspired visual style that suits the film well: he crafted what he lovingly refers to as “Kato Vision” where we see how Kato instantly assesses the imminent danger that his multiple opponents pose and then shows his superhumanly lethal and lightning fast moves in a slowmo style that’s kind of like Bullet Time on LSD.  There are other nice artistic touches, like a funny – but imposing – sight of Chudnofsky’s double barrel handgun and watching the awesome visage of the armored and fiendishly well-equipped Black Beauty is a real hoot.  Gondry has a lot of fun with a scene involving Britt and Kato settling there mutual frustrations with an all-out donnybrook in Britt’s mansion and a climatic race where the Black Beauty careens in and out of The Daily Sentinel office building has some of the same reckless chaos and genuine disregard to property as the conclusion of THE BLUES BROTHERS. 

THE GREEN HONEST has issues, though: I think that for as amusing as it is, it never really is smart and subversive with satirizing the super hero milieu the same way KICK-ASS did last year.  Also, the overall story is meandering at times and seems to lack focus and momentum.  I loved Christoph Waltz to death as the “Jew Hunter” in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, which netted him an Oscar, and he indeed is very capable of harnessing the over-the-top preposterousness of “Bloodnofsky”, but the character himself is fairly underdeveloped and feels marginalized for an actor of Waltz's pedigree and standing.  Edward James Almos, a great character actor, is wasted as Britt’s Daily Sentinel colleague and voice of reason, and Cameron Diaz – looking as lovely and fetching as ever – plays the most superfluous character of the bunch as the Britt’s ultra-smart and beautiful secretary; this role is utterly disposable. 

And…yes…don’t get me started on the 3D, which was added well after the fact (sigh) to the 2D shot production, which reportedly left the film being delayed to this January instead of its intended Fall of 2010 release.  THE GREEN HORNET works well on its intended levels for being an idiosyncratically funny and rowdily enjoyable super hero film that is uniquely not cut from the same cloth of other recent silver screen comic book adventures.  Because of that, the film is more mischievously unique and inspired than I was expecting.  It joyously plays for spirited and enjoyable guffaws and does not try to aim beyond that (playing this film as serious as a heart attack - and with Rogen at the helm - would have been a catastrophic error).  For what it's worth, all the shoddy 3D-ification of the material serves for is eyestrain.  Seek this out in the more cost effective and ocular friendly 2D presentation and considered yourself better off because of it.

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