For better and worse, these are boom times for cinematic superherodom, for Bat-, Spider-, Iron-, Super-, Watch-, and X-Men—not to mention the occasional Catwoman or Hellboy. But despite the screen-time lavished on the cape-and-tights contingent, Hollywood has been somewhat leery of their fedora-ed forbears, those unfortunate masked vigilantes from before the Age of Lycra. The Shadow was released in 1994, featuring an Alec Baldwin whose primary endowment was a nose that elongated, Pinocchio-like, whenever it sniffed evil lurking in the hearts of men. Frank Miller's dispiriting take on The Spirit a couple of years ago could easily have laid the subgenre to rest for a generation. Yet hope springs eternal, and here we find ourselves, amid buzz for The Green Hornet.
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Seth Rogen co-wrote the screenplay with writing partner Evan Goldberg, and stars, improbably, as the titular hero. Direction is supplied by the always-interesting—and occasionally transcendent—Michel Gondry, who becomes the second Frenchman to tackle the subject in the last five years. (A thin-but-energetic short starring the wonderfully named stuntman/martial artist Manu Lanzi was directed by the still-more-wonderfully-named Aurélien Poitrimoult in 2006.)
Given the unlikely talents involved, it is perhaps little surprise that the The Green Hornet is a pastiche of action and comedy, pulp drama and bromance. At its best, the film is sly and irreverent, enlivening an exhausted genre like an Apatowian Iron Man. At its worst, it's an ungainly hybrid, suffering not only from the flaws common to 3-D action movies (yes, the filmmakers will eventually find occasion to hurl a pickup truck into a bus), but from its own conflicting impulses and ambitions as well.
Rogen plays Britt Reid, the lazy, dissolute son of newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson) who dies—accident? murder? have you ever seen a superhero movie?—early in the proceedings. Dad having been something of a jerk, however, it is not this death that jolts Britt from his porcine complacency; rather it's the discovery, the next morning, that his customary cappuccino is not up to usual standards. It turns out that he has inadvertently fired the manorial barista, Kato (Jay Chou).
Britt re-summons said servant to have him demonstrate the proper use of his hand-built, Rube-Goldberg espresso machine. (Prepare yourself for involuntarily erotic murmurs from coffee-drinkers in the audience.) Britt soon learns that Kato also served as his dad's chauffeur and mechanic, and has a particular aptitude for equipping vehicles with bulletproof glass, retractable machineguns, and other out-of-the-ordinary upgrades.
That night, mutually miffed at the encomia being delivered in memory of James—who was as unlovable an employer as he was a father—the two young men set out to vandalize a statue erected in his honor. In the course of their mischief they fall, more or less by accident, into the role of crime fighters. Back at the newspaper he has inherited, Britt takes pains to ensure that the escalating antics of the newly dubbed "Green Hornet" remain front-page news. (He is, in Spider-Man terms, his own J. Jonah Jameson.)