In the pantheon of superhero movies, The Green Hornet ranks above the atrocities known as Steel and Catwoman, but never reaches the heights of Iron Man. Therein lays the dilemma with The Green Hornet, it is a film that seems happy to remain in the middle of the pack, content with its own mediocrity.
The Green Hornet began life not as a comic book character, but as a 1936 radio serial created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, who also created The Lone Ranger. In fact, the Hornet was meant to be a direct descendent of the masked gunfighter. Perhaps, the most well-known incarnation of the emerald vigilante was a brief television series that aired on ABC from 1966 to 1967. That series starred Van Williams as the Green Hornet and introduced the world to Bruce Lee as the kung fu fighting sidekick, Kato.
A feature film version has been in development for nearly two decades with the property bouncing around from Universal to Miramax to Sony. George Clooney, during the early days of his fledgling movie career, was attached to star before making the fateful decision to film Batman & Robin instead. Both Jason Scott Lee (who ironically played Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) and Jet Li were attached as Kato at one point or another while the studio looked at Greg Kinnear and Mark Wahlberg as possibilities before landing in the hands of the Weinsteins. Kevin Smith was brought on to write and direct, but his version never came to fruition though his script eventually resurfaced as a comic book published by Dynamite Entertainment. This brings us to Seth Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg who are white hot following the success of Superbad. The duo surprisingly chooses The Green Hornet as a future project. Fanboys are skeptical about Rogen dipping his feet into the action realm, but perk up when Rogen’s first choice for Kato is Stephen Chow. The star of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle not only signs on to play the crimefighter chauffeur, but to direct as well. Sadly, Chow eventually parted ways due to the lack of creative control he was used to in the Hong Kong film industry. Michel Gondry (who was actually attached to direct back in 1997) is brought on board to replace him as director while Taiwanese pop star/actor Jay Chou is cast as the new Kato.
Rogen plays Britt Reid, the spoiled son of newspaper mogul, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). Growing up under the harsh hand of his father, Reid has become the male equivalent of Paris Hilton, wasting his life away on an endless parade of parties, booze, and loose women. Everything changes when James dies due to a bee sting. Britt befriends Kato, who worked for his father as a mechanic and barista. Yep, this Kato not only kicks ass, but makes a mean cup of coffee too.
Britt and Kato bond over their mutual dislike for the elder Reid and engage in a night of debauchery and vandalism. They wind up saving a couple from an attack by a gang of hoodlums and decide to mask up as a pair of costumed vigilantes. Britt also hits on the idea to pose as villains in order to get closer to the criminals while preventing them from using innocents as bargaining chips. In his civilian guise, Britt uses his late-father’s newspaper, the Daily Sentinel, to publicize the Green Hornet’s exploits as he wrecks havoc across Los Angeles.
Though Gondry has proven to be an incredibly imaginative and playful filmmaker, The Green Hornet is Seth Rogen’s show through and through. Flashes of Gondry’s signature style emerge here and there, such as in clever split screen sequence that breaks into a cluttered mosaic of assassins hunting for the Hornet. Gondry’s largest contribution to the film is the use of “Kato-Vision,” taking the audience into the mind’s eye of the Hornet’s sidekick during his fight sequences. It isn’t simply slow motion, but slow motion and fast motion simultaneously as Kato moves at lightning speed before the bad guys even have a chance to react. We see Kato zeroing in on critical attack points, charting out his strategy within a split second. Alas, these moments are fleeting as The Green Hornet drudges along as a formulaic buddy comedy.
The joke has always been that Kato does most of the work and the movie plays into that. Kato is the ultimate fighting machine and he creates the team’s entire arsenal, including a gas gun. The crown jewel is definitely the Black Beauty, ’65 Chrysler Imperial tricked out with bulletproof windows, machine guns, and rocket launchers. Meanwhile, Britt Reid stumbles around throughout the film as an obnoxious doofus. All well and good if he goes through a character arc and learns to grow as a person. He doesn’t and neither does Rogen grow as an actor. Yes, Rogen is a funny guy, but he continues to play the same frat boy man-child he has in previous pictures like Knocked Up and Pineapple Express.
The burden is left to Rogen’s co-stars to carry the weight. Jay Chou isn’t up to the task, however. As the silent straight man, he plays well against the glib Rogen, but his iffy English is painfully obvious when given any substantial dialogue. Chou delivers his line with wooden conviction and little screen presence. Cameron Diaz pops in as Lenore Case, Britt Reid’s new secretary who is originally assigned from a temp agency. I’d love to know what temp agency sends you Cameron Diaz. Unlike most obligatory love interests, Lenore has little tolerance for Britt’s horndog flirtations. In fact, she seems to be more intrigued by Kato, but that subplot never leads anywhere. She winds up being nothing more than a throwaway character, a far cry from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Tom Wilkinson and Edward James Olmos (as the Perry White-esque editor are equally wasted in bit roles.
The biggest waste, without a doubt, is Christoph Waltz, still hot off his Academy Award winning turn as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Here, Waltz is Chudnofsky, a gangster who has risen to control the entire underworld of L.A. His ruthlessness is matched only by his insecurities. He is constantly worried that other people don’t find him scary enough. Chudnofsky also arms himself with a custom-made double-barreled Desert Eagle. Waltz’s brilliant portrayal of the Nazi officer was helped by Quentin Tarantino’s amazing script. He truly sunk his teeth into the role, but Rogen and Goldberg are unable to offer anything as meaty. Aside from an early scene opposite an uncredited James Franco, Waltz is never given the proper material to create something more than a run-of-the-mill villain.
Once slated as a summer tentpole film, The Green Hornet was pushed back to a holiday release before quietly being scuttled off into the doldrums of January. Despite Gondry’s best efforts, his unique visual style is crushed underneath the heel of committee filmmaking and Rogen’s unconvincing attempt at playing the action hero. While the film is hardly the stinker many predicted, the final product is ultimately generic and forgettable.
The Green Hornet was pointlessly converted to 3D in post-production. It looks better than the hackjobs of previous conversions like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender, but the 3D adds nothing to the experience.
Rating: 5 out of 10