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.)
There are elements of a sharp hero/sidekick inversion here: Kato is the handsome, brilliant inventor and karate expert; Britt is, well, rich enough to pay the salary of someone like Kato. But the inversion is inevitably incomplete. This is, after all, Rogen's film. (Chou, a Taiwanese pop star, is only passably fluent in English.) So for all Britt's shortcomings—he is by turns self-centered and self-loathing, and resolutely devoid of any discernible talent—he must ultimately rise to the occasion of top billing. This metamorphosis from zero to hero is a sluggish one: As Britt bickers jealously with Kato around the three-quarter mark of the film, it's easy to conclude that James's low opinion of his offspring was not without merit.
Thanks to Britt's prolonged petulance and the de rigueur action finale, the last third of The Green Hornet sags appreciably. Still, the film bestows its share of notable amusements. In the underwritten role of crime-boss Chudnofsky, Christophe Waltz offers the same dry, insinuating charm he brought to the role of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, a vulnerability within the villainy. Likewise, Cameron Diaz has her moments in the Pepper-Potts-y role of Britt's assistant, Lenore Case—in particular, an unexpectedly head-on gag about her advancing age in youth-obsessed Hollywood. Rogen supplies himself with a healthy share of Rogenesque laughs, while reserving a few for Pineapple Express co-star James Franco, who appears in an uncredited cameo.
There are frequent, likable nods to the original "Green Hornet" radio show: the snatches of classical music, a glimpsed sketch of Bruce Lee, Britt's insistence that he'll be a more effective hero if the public believes him to be a criminal. And though Gondry fails to imbue the film with the touching humanism of his best work (Eternal Sunshine, Be Kind Rewind), he contributes an appealing visual whimsy to the proceedings.
At the end, just as it seems the film—like the Hornet's tricked-out 1965 Chrysler Imperial—may have run completely out of gas, it abruptly shifts gears for a brief but witty coda featuring the all-but-forgotten Diaz. It's a finale disappointing only in that it serves as a reminder of just how far astray the film had wandered during its requisite car-crash-and-gunfire phase.
Last week, Lynda Obst made a persuasive case that the economic obligations of the foreign market were strangling American film comedy. (Short version: jokes often don't translate; explosions are universal.) The Green Hornet suggests that the balance may have been upset not only between movies, but within them as well.