The Green Hornet2011-01-14
by Richard von Busack
A movie about a slouchy superhero didn’t have to be a slouchy movie, but The Green Hornet is thoroughly slouchy work. Even the main villain (played by Christopher Waltz of Inglourious Basterds) literally apologizes for not being more scary.
He shouldn’t have apologized. It’s not Waltz’s fault that his character is written as if he were doing a long Saturday Night Live skit…the kind that ends with a frame-breaking admission to the audience that the sketch is not working.
In any case, The Green Hornet is most inept in the central partnership between the two male leads; if this spells the end of a genre, it won’t be the end of the superhero film…it’ll be the end of the bromance genre instead.
Speaking stylistically, director Michel Gondry has been in pre-adolescence longer than Pee Wee Herman. And he’s been trying to make a film around this dusty property for some time.
One version proposed over the years was to be a vehicle for Stephen Chow as Kato, and that might have been something to see. Chow’s intrepid slapstick, his Frank Tashlin-worthy understanding of the live-action cartoon, could have made a worthwhile movie of this third-tier superhero.
(Above: the class of '66)
The ABC 1966 TV season spawned a million geeks; a minor if memorable part of that year’s offering was Friday night’s programming, the one-season Green Hornet. (It lead into The Time Tunnel, an expensive but beloved sci-fi show about two-fisted chrononauts.) Based on a long-running radio show of 1936-52, The Green Hornet was meant to augment the far more exciting Batman on Wednesday and Thursday.
It’s memorable for the discovery of Hong Kong legend Bruce Lee in the role of Kato, a martial arts wizard-cum-valet. In the lead was Van Williams as the crusading newspaper publisher Britt Reid, secretly the Green Hornet.
The masked, fedora wearing vigilante’s ride was a 1966 Chrysler Crown Imperial named “The Black Beauty”; the car may be more memorable than Williams himself. So was the punchy theme song: a vibrating droning Theremin accompanying Billy May’s jazz arrangement of Rimsky Korsakov’s the “Flight of the Bumblebee”. Al Hirt soloed on frenzied trumpet.
This new film version is tailored for Seth Rogen. It’s not a role that rides on his shoulders well.
Rogen’s Britt is a trust fund case, Paris Hilton if she were a guy. His newspaper publisher father James (Tom Wilkinson in a seriously bad rug) never cared for him much and once snapped the head off his super hero action figure.
As a result of this childhood trauma, Britt has grown into the kind of partier who smashes television sets for pleasure. On the soundtrack of this party scene is the Stones’ “Live With Me.” The tune conjures up a charming mental landscape of decadence so much more barbarous than the aimless, cramped-in-a-condo destruction we see here. (What we see is the kind of decadence that gives decadence a bad name.)
When the elder Reid dies suddenly of anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, Rogen’s Britt is left alone in his family mansion.
Herein you get the lesson of why it’s a bad idea for a Batman movie to spend time hanging around Wayne Manor: the wealthy hero starts to look spoiled. After a bad cup of coffee one morning, Britt goes looking for the reason why: it's because the servant he never noticed, Kato did the coffee making (Britt had fired him in a scene that we don’t see here). He discovers the Shanghai-born servant is a wizardly barista as well as a brilliant engineer who can armor cars and make gadgets.
“You’re a human Swiss army knife!” says Britt, a comment he has to explain to the mechanic. Having this new playfellow, Britt is eager to ride by night in the car Kato develops.
Asian musical phenom Jay Chou plays Kato; it must have been hoped that Chou’s slightness and roundness and geeky clothes (such as the zip up turtleneck shirt he wears) would conjure up happy memories of Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad.
With green screen and stunt doubles, Chou can be made to look as if he could fight. The relatively few fight scenes are legible; we zero in on Kato’s eyeball and we see augmented reality of his being able to spot weapons and attackers which glow deep neon red. It’s like a hyper-visualized version of the fine bit in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes of zeroing in on the anatomy Holmes wants to strike. But one doesn’t get the sense of him as a warrior, with something to prove: the English language gives him the biggest battle, and then there’s the matter of the role as it is framed. Chou's Kato has a subordinate position to a rich wastrel, and he never gets to teach the boss the bastardized Chinese philosophy we expect in a martial arts movie (learn to be quiet, big Western blowhard, learn to wait, learn to control yourself)…Gondry and Rogen dumped all of the useful clichés and kept the useless ones.
The team’s first adventure is an accidental encounter with muggers. It happens after the two go to vandalize the bronze statue of Britt’s father at his father’s grave. Incidentally, how does one find the right tone of this scene?—“our hero goes out to vandalize the grave of his father”. Probably you don’t preface it with a scene of the hero attending the funeral earlier.
The two as yet unnamed vigilantes stumble across a girl being roughed up by robbers and rescue her. The next day, determined to make a name for the team, Britt goes to his father’s newspaper. He tells the editor (Edward James Olmos) that he doesn’t read the paper. But he uses his family name to insist they cover this masked avenger; he even asks the editorial board for a suggestion for a name for the fugitive, caught on security cameras outside the cemetery.
Now that they’re getting free publicity, Britt and Kato pose as criminals who are starting a gang war to take over the underworld in Los Angeles.
The idea in Green Hornet was to have these heroes living in LA as it stands today, going aimlessly downtown like slummers to find some criminals. Britt notices a pair of sneakers hanging off a telephone wire and realizes they’re in the crime zone. It’s not a bad joke. Neither is the follow-up: “I’ve never been into this part of town before” before they roust some drug dealers and use their car’s arsenal to blow up a meth lab.
(Above: Christopher Waltz and his little friend.)
The friendship of the two heroes surpasses the love of man and woman; in other words, this film needs a beard. As this beard, Cameron Diaz is treated with contempt. Such contempt in fact, that the women-dislike at the underside of the bromance film has never been quite this clear. She plays Lenore, who is actually intelligent about criminology and newspaper publishing. First she’s introduced with contemptuously poor writing: “I’m from the temporary agency, this is my first day.” It’s like the dialogue was swiped from a porn film.
After that, Lenore gets baited for being old—there’s a joke about Lenore being in her twilight years (Diaz is about 40, as opposed to Rogan, who is about 30).
But once the hazing is over, she can enter Kato and Britt’s two man fraternity; she settles down to provide ideas for where the Green Hornet should strike.
There’s a hasty bit about Lenore’s interest being more piqued by Kato than in Britt. Why not? Kato’s not a buffoon, he’s polite, we know how smart he is, and he doesn’t grab her like Britt does. But all this sets up an unresolved rivalry, which peters out into nothingness after a big and childish fight. It looks scrambled, as if the writers and director never could figure out how these scenes were supposed to go.
This Green Hornet is heavy on the origin story—a kiss of death, during this, our never-ending superhero glut. From there, the film goes into wanton Blues Brothers style car-wreckage to make up for its lack of purpose and thrilling conflict.
The Green Hornet seems to be a non-movie like Pineapple Express, put together with po-mo duct tape…with scenes that explain why there’s a scene where there’s a scene. (The Pineapple Express link is made stronger in an unbilled performance by that film’s James Franco, playing a soon to be demised night club owner.)
Some of the car stunts are better than average: a reprise of the bit about the car severed in half that’s still ambulatory, seen in the Piazza San Marcos scene in Moonraker a few decades ago. This scene leads to the halved remains of the Black Beauty riding a glass elevator up to the top of the newspaper building. All the bullets and broken glass are there so the Green Hornet can deliver a USB drive to a computer. (Smart as he is, Kato couldn’t have put wi-fi in the car? )
David Harbour plays the district attorney Scanlon; when Harbour and Rogen share a scene at a Japanese restaurant, Rogen’s particular belligerence and physical heft gets met and matched. This doesn’t happen in the film; Rogen relentlessly bullies his own movie. A big fight between Kato and Britt leaves a couple of rooms smashed. This doesn’t really count as Rogen meeting a matching force. (The jealousy over Lenore is supposed to be the reason for the fight, despite the way the romance is almost an after thought.)
An ejector seat ride over Century City would have that carnival charm Gondry always tries to work. It’s too bad the moment hadn’t been the backdrop to some other development in the plot. Batman, remember, never wastes time appreciating the amazing things in his world; he’s too busy trying to figure out what to do next, and he leaves the appreciation to us. The Hornet’s gas gun, which knocks cold with one green cloud of animated smoke, is another joke without a punchline.
Eventually, when Britt finally figures out the real villainy is, it’s staged as a flashback: he puts together all the clues in his mind. It’s the first piece of detective work this would be superhero does, and it comes just as the movie is closing. Gondry’s computer animation, with levitating blood-red and white roses and voice-over dialogue, is as nicely sinister as any of his music videos. It’s like a visually amped up version of the dream sequence in Vertigo. But in a movie this indifferent to tone, caught between fantasy and reality, the adventure never gets started. Don’t bother about the 3D effects; they’re not worth the price of the glasses. The Green Hornet’s end brings a dual reaction. First, finally, the movie’s over. Secondly, that’s all there was to it?