Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Green Hornet

Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, Cameron Diaz, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Tom Wilkinson
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When it was announced Seth Rogen would be playing the title character in an updated big screen version of The Green Hornet, I, along with many others (himself probably included), wondered how exactly he'd be able to do it, as well as co-write the screenplay. The news that it wouldn't be a slapstick comedy, but attempt to remain true to the roots of the original comic books and short-lived 60's television series best known for introducing Bruce Lee to American audiences, only kicked my skepticism up a notch. So now, after actually watching Michel Gondry's unfairly maligned The Green Hornet I'm still not exactly sure how Rogen was able to pull this off and have it work so well for him, but he did, and in a way that plays to his strengths and remains relatively faithful to the spirit of the source material. In a big surprise for a mainstream action comedy, much less a superhero movie, this is a cleverly written script full of smart choices that makes far fewer mistakes than you'd imagine. As unpopular as I'll be for saying it, this might be better than Iron Man and its underwhelming sequel, which everyone seemed to drool over for no reason other than the performances of Downey and Paltrow (which in all fairness was a pretty good reason). But the story here is more involving, and because Rogen and company wisely recognize and embrace the genre's ridiculousness, it ends up being a lot less less ridiculous than you'd think.

You know you're off to a good start when you've already got a hilarious James Franco cameo (as a goofy mob boss) a mere ten minutes in. Between that and a backstory for the protagonist that's actually somewhat tremendous, it lays the groundwork for the rest of the film nicely. Rogen is Britt Reed, the slacker slob son of Los Angeles newspaper tycoon James Reid (Tim Wilkinson), a strict authoritarian who never thought his son could amount to anything. When the elder Reid suddenly drops dead from an allergic reaction to a bee sting, Britt must abandon his hard partying lifestyle to step up and run the company. Despite firing nearly all his father's staff, he decides to keep mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) and after the two go out for a night of mayhem on the town they unwillingly (at first) become wanted criminals who land on the front page of his paper. Realizing he now has a shot at fulfilling his lifelong superhero dreams, Britt assumes the identity of a masked avenger named the Green Hornet and comes up with the idea of being the first superhero to pose as a criminal to infiltrate L.A's crime ring. As his ego and delusions grow so does the power of Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), a crazed, insecure Russian mobster worrying his best days as a villain are behind him and looking to make a big impact by taking out the Hornet and Kato. 

My familiarity with The Green Hornet as a superhero property is limited to only catching snippets of the show as a kid so I'm hardly aware of how well this nails all the tiny details. But you don't have to be an expert (or even know the character at all) to pick up on the smart choices Rogen and his Superbad co-writer Evan Goldberg made in updating it. They come up with reasonable solutions as to how to introduce Kato, give The Green Hornet his name, pair them together, introduce the Black Beauty" car and throw them into crime fighting. With lot of that they couldn't just fall back on the comics and old TV series and were forced to come up with explanations of their own. When you consider that, this plays as almost a prequel to anyone familiar with the franchise, without leaving longtime fans in the dust. What's interesting is that The Green Hornet TV Series (which ran only two seasons in the late 60's) played it straight as an action drama, whereas the legendary Batman show starring Adam West shared the same writer in during the same era, but was presented as a campy comedy. This film has more in common with the latter and while that approach would definitely result in disaster with some superhero franchises, it's fine for the Hornet because, let's face it, the whole idea behind it is kind of silly anyway. Add Rogen to the equation and it becomes even sillier, so the best thing to do was just to run with that, which they do.

Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) gets the tone just right and knows enough to give the film enough of an edge so everything doesn't seem like a total joke. In that sense it's comparable to Kick-Ass in featuring a protagonist as much surprised that he's a superhero as we are, which is why Rogen's casting is gold. He's someone who always seems like a fan at heart anyway, so he's never sold to us as an actual crimefighter, but as some lucky slacker with an inferiority complex who inherited his daddy's empire (a storyline more developed here than it was in Iron Man). Yet Rogen makes Britt likably goofy, even in between his fits of rage and delusional insistence that Kato's just his "sidekick." Jay Chou deserves a standing ovation for being able to step into that iconic role, and not only avoid comparisons to his famous predecessor, but put his own spin on the part.  No one even remembers who played The Green Hornet (it was Van Williams) but everyone knows Bruce Lee was Kato, which had to make this more difficult for Chou. How many superhero sidekicks more famous than the superheroes?  Chou's take is obviously more comical but he has great chemistry with Rogen and is completely believable as an expert martial artist in the action scenes. But at its core this is really a buddy comedy and about as funny as any of the bromances we'd typically expect to find Rogen starring in.

Any that worries Christoph Waltz would be playing a variation on his charismatic sociopath from Inglourious Basterds for the rest of his career are temporarily unfounded since he makes Chudnofsky as uncharismatic and unsure of himself as possible. It isn't too often you see a villain in a superhero suffering a mid-life crisis. Strangely resembling Ellen Barkin more and more by the day, Cameron Diaz is easily the weakest link as Britt's secretary Lenore Case. As kind of a poor man's Pepper Potts, she brings none of the wit and charm Paltrow did to that similar role and generally just seems all wrong for it. Hollywood's insistence on continually casting her in the same pin-up, air head supermodel roles she played fifteen years ago is ludicrous enough, but what's worse is she doesn't even seem to be trying anymore. That's no fault of Rogen's script, which at least attempts to give her an important function to the plot and avoids trapping her in the typical love interest role. 

Releasing this in 3D was the worst thing that could have happened to it and likely accounted for its poor reception since the story was strong enough to hold its own without a gimmick. So while I agree completely with those who feel it was just a cash grabbing ploy by the studio, the film shouldn't be penalized for everything else it does well. The actions scenes (especially the final sequence) are exciting and the the two-hour running time flies by, but there's nothing here that seems like it would be enhanced by a 3D experience, making me think I got the good end of the deal renting it. You have to figure Rogen must be fan since he really seems to be onto to something in terms of how superhero movies should be approached. Some take themselves too seriously. Others unintentionally seem like lightweight spoofs. By bending a few rules, The Green Hornet gets it right, even if audiences didn't seem to be in the mood.

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