I’d hoped for better, but expected worse, which means that Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet is at best—or at worst—a mixed bag of a movie. There are good—or at least very clever—things in it, but it comes across as three movies trying to be one. It’s partly a quirky, slightly sweet, somewhat dark Michel Gondry movie, partly a subversion of the superhero comic-book movie and partly a star vehicle for Seth Rogen’s ego. The first two parts make a better blend than does the final third, making it tempting to blame the things that don’t work on Rogen. Yet, Rogen co-wrote and co-produced the film, so it’s unreasonable not to credit him with at least some of what’s good about The Green Hornet.
The source material is something of a curious choice, since The Green Hornet only seems like a comic-book character. The Hornet actually originated as a radio show in 1936, spawned a couple of serial films and several not exactly world-class comic-book attempts. Its greatest fame to modern audiences comes from the cult following of the one-season ABC-TV series that was made largely to cash in on the same network’s Batman show. The Green Hornet show was played straight—unlike Batman—and was not a huge hit. But the presence of Bruce Lee as the Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, eventually gained the show a following, and is the main reason it’s remembered today. (Quick—without recourse to reference material—who played the Hornet? Exactly.) The new film draws more from the TV show than anything else—including poking fun at the hero as really being subordinate to the sidekick.
The new Hornet has Seth Rogen as Britt Reid, spoiled, party-boy son of newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). It’s only after his father’s death that Britt and his father’s mechanic/coffee-maker Kato (Jay Chou) decide to become crime fighters posing as criminals—and really for no very good reason except that they think it would be cool. They—especially Britt—don’t have a clue how to go about it, since their first bout is accidental. As a result, they end up relying on Britt’s secretary (and crime specialist) Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) to unwittingly provide the trajectory of their plans by telling them the usual path taken by criminals. All this is good, and it works in broad strokes at least.
Also good is the relationship between Britt and Kato in all its gay (but non-erotic) subtext glory—and the fact that neither of them can get to first base with Lenore. The relationships—and the way that Gondry handles them—are remarkably similar to the ones involving Jack Black, Mos Def and Melonie Diaz in Be Kind Rewind (2008), and it’s surprising that Gondry was able to imprint so much of himself onto a project like this. For that matter, there’s more than a little of his trademark low-tech, handmade quality, and that’s equally surprising in a big-budget action picture. Similarly, the character of Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds)—a clearly insane arch-villain, whose major preoccupation is how scary he is—would fit right in with the world of Gondry’s films.
With so much that’s right with The Green Hornet, what’s the problem? Well, primarily it’s a combination of pandering to its star, who just isn’t as funny as he thinks he is, and the film’s necessity to fulfill its action-picture promises. There’s nothing wrong with the big climax, but it feels more like it was required than inspired. It doesn’t by any means sink the movie, but it doesn’t improve it, nor is the ending as good as the film’s quirkier aspects. In the end, it’s a movie that I’d recommend—especially to Gondry fans—but with some definite reservations. And the retrofitted 3-D? I didn’t mind it, but it is utterly pointless. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violent action, language, sensuality and drug content.