Green Hornet, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/14/11 04:10:36

"The Hipsters That Kicked Over the Hornet's Nest"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Considering the fact that it has been trapped in development hell for the better part of two decades and went through a myriad array of potential participants including actors ranging the gamut from Eddie Murphy to George Clooney to Jake Gyllenhaal and directors as diverse as Stephen Chow and Kevin Smith (who transformed his unused take on the material into a comic book) before arriving in theaters in the dead of January, traditionally a dumping ground for misfit movies that the studios have little faith in, in an incarnation featuring a lead actor who is absolutely nobody’s idea of a traditional superhero type, an Asian pop star who is virtually unknown in these parts, a big-name actress whose presence is mysteriously being hidden in all the promotion, a screenplay from a duo better known for writing raunchy comedies than action epics, a defiantly quirky director working within the full confines of the studio machine for the first time and a last-minute conversion of the footage into 3-D, a gimmick that audiences have grown increasingly suspicious of thanks to such visual atrocities as “Clash of the Titans” and “The Last Airbender,” it is entirely likely that most moviegoers in the know will walk into “The Green Hornet,” the big-screen return of the urban superhero whose adventures have been chronicled on radio, film and television since being introduced in 1936, fully expecting a cinematic disaster of biblical proportions. And yet, despite all of these seemingly incompatible elements--or perhaps because of them--it turns out to be some kind of weird and wobbly mini-triumph after. I can’t imagine that this film even vaguely resembles what the people behind it must have pictured when they first began working on it but it is a pretty entertaining piece of pop cinema that is probably going to turn out to be the strangest expenditure of a rumored $130 million budget that is likely to hit the multiplexes anytime soon.

One minor obstacle in bringing the Green Hornet to the screen is the fact that he, unlike top-shelf superhero characters like Superman or Batman, is largely an unknown quantity to most contemporary audiences--if he is known at all these days, he is remembered from the 1960’s TV show that featured a young Bruce Lee as loyal sidekick Kato or, more likely, because the killer theme song to the show by Quincy Jones appeared on the soundtrack to one of the “Kill Bill” movies. However, the story cooked up by screenwriters Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, better known for such wild comedies as “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express,” have concocted an origin tale that more or less follows the basic parameters (although the detail about the Green Hornet being a distant relative of the Lone Ranger has been left aside) while updating it to a contemporary setting. Here, Rogen plays Britt Reid, a party-hearty rich kid whose chief ambition in life seems to be disappointing his father (Tom Wilkinson), a crusading newspaper publisher, with his drunken antics. When Dad unexpectedly dies from a bee sting, Britt is forced to grow up in a hurry and step into his father’s footsteps but this is a tricky thing for him to do, especially since he has never even read a newspaper before, let alone run one. Before long, he finds himself bonding with Kato (Jay Chou), his father’s former assistant and a whiz with mechanics and coffee-making, and while out carousing one night, the two stumble upon a mugging and take it upon themselves to break it up--okay, Kato does most of the actual breaking up, but never mind.

Despite having barely escaped with his life, Britt is strangely exhilarated by what happened and decides that this is what he was meant to do with his life. He proposes to Kato that they become superhero-like vigilantes who will patrol the streets of Los Angeles and clean them up for good. His brilliant twist to avoid possible detection is to pose as bad guys themselves in order to infiltrate that ranks of the underworld and work their way up the criminal food chain. This may not seem like the most brilliant idea--as Kato points out, it means that they will be pursued by criminals and cops alike--but soon they are trolling the streets in the fabulously appointed auto known as the Black Beauty in the guise of their alter egos Green Hornet and. . .okay, Kato never quite gets around to assuming another identity. To increase their stature in the community, Britt uses his newspaper to hype up the Green Hornet’s activities and promote him as a criminal mastermind and asks new secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) to utilize her criminology major to plot out what his next moves might be so that he knows what he should do next. Eventually, Britt’s activities catch the attention of the city’s chief crime boss, the nefarious Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), and he and Kato are soon targeted for destruction and must overcome all forms of adversity in order to save the day and the city.

On the surface, much of this may sound like your typical superhero saga but right from the start, it becomes clear that Rogen, Goldberg and Gondry have something stranger up their collective sleeves. Although the basic story may seem familiar, Rogen & Goldberg keep goosing it with strange little detours and goofy bits of humor that almost serve as a alternative commentary track to the main feature. The funniest of these comes right at the beginning when Chudnofsky visits a competitor (an unbilled James Franco) in order to muscle him out of business and is instead forced to listen to the younger punk lecture him at length about how his type is no longer particularly frightening--at least until Chudnofsky whips out his double-barreled pistol, that is. The screenplay also does a good job of contemporizing the material while still maintaining a certain nostalgia for the past--in these times when such things seem to be dropping out of sight left and right, it is nice to see a film in which newspapers are still held up to some degree of esteem. There are a few rough patches here and there--the middle section of the film is a bit of a slog at times and the Cameron Diaz character is so thinly conceived and executed that it is a wonder that she would accept it in the first place--but for the most part, Rogen & Goldberg do a pretty good job of keeping the film fleet and funny without letting the action sequences overwhelm the rest of the proceedings.

As for Gondry, this is obviously his most conventional and least personal work to date--the expected trade-off when one signs on to direct a studio blockbuster--but it isn’t a complete sellout on his part by any means. He delivers the expected action beats and keeps things moving along but he also gets to indulge his more whimsical side at times as well with such oddball touches as the “KatoVision” visual gimmick that puts viewers in Kato’s point-of-view as he launches into battle, the notion that many of Kato’s contraptions come with built-in turntables to the weirdo climax in which our heroes find themselves driving through the upper floors of the newspaper building in the front half of a car. Gondry even manages to make the post-conversion 3-D a little more palatable than usual--the process still doesn’t really add much and you would be much better off if you can find it showing in 2-D but it does look a little better here than the norm,

With his doughy features and perpetual stoner aura, Seth Rogen is clearly no one’s idea of a conventionally heroic figure and even though that is part of the point, I have a hunch that many people will instinctively resist the notion of him even attempting to take on such a role as he has here. In fact, he is pretty good in the role of Britt Reid and part of the reason for that is that he has not tampered down his rough edges in order to try to fit into a leading man role--at varying times before his character is forced to pull himself together, he is oafish, dopey, ungainly, smug, egocentric and oftentimes a creep in the way that he blatantly comes on to Lenore. As Kato, Jay Chou is okay in his English-language debut but is hampered by the fact that in terms of on-screen personality, he is no Bruce Lee--to be fair, however, few people are. Cameron Diaz does what she can with a substandard role and while her presence is winning enough, it just seems a little embarrassing to bring her on board and then give her nothing but the standard Girl part that could have been easily and more cheaply filled by any up-and-coming starlet du jour. That said, the film is well and effectively stolen by Christoph Waltz, in his first major performance since winning the Oscar for his mesmerizing turn in “Inglourious Basterds,” as the increasingly neurotic Chudnofsky. As mentioned before, his opening scene with James Franco is a scream and he continues to bring the fun throughout with his hilarious portrayal of a crime kingpin undergoing the super villain version of a mid-life crisis--at one point, he finds himself wondering whether or not he should don a red outfit and rename himself Bloodnofsky in order to match up with the au courant Green Hornet.

“The Green Hornet” is a bit of a mess, make no mistake about it--it rambles at times and the whole thing is so amorphous that most of it will fade from memory before you hit the lobby after watching it. However, it has a lot of neat things going on here and there and it contains a sense of humor that is too often missing from contemporary superhero movies, many of which try to invoke an overly solemn tone that tends to be at odds with the inherently goofy material, not to mention wildly expensive would-be studio tent pole films that normally try to play thing safe in order to attract the widest possible audience. Whether or not it finds enough of an audience to warrant a follow-up is questionable--it may be just a little too unconventional for its own good at times--but I had a lot more fun watching it than I expected to have and if you walk into it in the right frame of mind to catch on to its warped wavelength, you may have a lot of fun with it as well.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.