Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Getting Stung by "The Green Hornet"

I feel sorry for any fan of "The Green Hornet" who went to the new Seth Rogen reboot hoping to see a faithful take on the character, who originated in a radio program and then went on to star in movie serials, comic books, and a television show in the 60s with Van Williams and Bruce Lee. Oh, the general premise and the fine details are the same. A newspaper man named Britt Reid gets the bright idea to fight crime as a superhero, with the help of his trusty manservant Kato. However, this isn't a straight adaptation but a merciless skewering of the original "Green Hornet" and certain elements of the whole superhero genre. It's very, very funny, but I'm sure many of the Hornet's existing fans were wincing.

The primary difference here is that Britt Reid is a buffoon. Played by Seth Rogen, who also had scripting duties with Evan Goldberg, Britt is an immature, egomaniacal, self-aggrandizing, slacker frat-boy who inherits a media empire from his departed father James Reid (Tom Wilkinson) and resents him for it. His intentions are pure and he tries to make good by becoming a crimefighter, but Britt can barely go five minutes in the movie without making an ass of himself. Chief among his bad habits is constantly taking credit for the work of Kato (Jay Chou), who does the bulk of the fighting, builds the cool cars, and invents all the neat gadgets for the Green Hornet. All of Britt's insights into criminology come from from his extremely overqualified secretary - does anyone still call them secretaries? - Lenore (Cameron Diaz), who Britt obliviously insults and sexually harasses during their interview.

In such fashion, Rogen and company none-too-gently poke fun at all the problematic elements of "The Green Hornet" lore. As a comedy, the movie works gangbusters. It's a lot of fun, has wonderful energy, and the visual gags and action sequences are a blast. But as a superhero film, even a comedic superhero film, "The Green Hornet" is hard to swallow. The biggest problem is Rogen. As hard as he tries, he's never credible as a heroic person, but merely someone who's posing in the role. Rogen's inherent likability kept me rooting for him to make this character work, but I think Britt Reid was changed too much. Making him ineffectual, insensitive, and oblivious to the contributions of the people around him is one thing, but this Britt is such a crass, mean-spirited, petty guy, with a bizarrely R-rated vocabulary for a PG-13 film (how did they get this past the MPAA?!), you seriously start to wonder why Kato and Lenore put all this effort toward helping him and don't get fed up with his antics a lot earlier.

To their credit, they do get fed up. All the characters around Britt work just fine. Jay Chou and Cameron Diaz put in good performances here. Chou is especially good as Kato, though in some of the action scenes I think his role bears more resemblance to the "Pink Panther" Cato as opposed to the "Green Hornet" Kato. And I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the villain of the piece, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), a traditional black-suited baddie confounded by a sudden proliferation of image-conscious, gimmick-happy rivals. His resulting midlife crisis and awkward attempts to turn himself into a supervillain are hysterical. I wish they'd done more with the idea and more with Waltz.

Finally, my pretentious movie fan credentials require me to talk about the director, Michel Gondry, whose wildly inventive visual style was a hallmark of his past pictures like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Be Kind Rewind." Here, we get Gondry-lite. There are a few scenes that are recognizably his work, and I'm guessing a lot of the neat gadget ideas and action sequences came from him, but most of the movie doesn't feel like Gondry. While this proves that the director is capable of churning out mass-market entertainments like everyone else, which should be good for the budgets of his future projects, I can't help wishing I could have seen a version of "The Green Hornet" where Gondry really let loose and did it his way with all the cardboard and toilet paper and oversized puppets.

But there's no use in reviewing the film that wasn't made, especially when the film that was made was a perfectly good watch. Ultimately, I don't think there's all that much wrong with "The Green Hornet" except the title. The film was a good satirical takedown of the concept of "The Green Hornet," and might have been even better if they'd taken the joke farther, but it didn't really work as a reboot of the franchise. There was too much smirking for that, and not enough heart. And that's the thing about superheroes - brains and brawn can be compensated for, but they gotta have heart.

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