Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Green Hornet: Not much sting

The Green Hornet (2011) • View trailer for The Green Hornet
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violent action, profanity, brief sensuality and fleeting drug content
By Derrick Bang

As also is true of Will Ferrell, a little bit of Seth Rogen goes a long way.

A very long way.

As a result, one’s ability to enjoy – or even tolerate – this crazed, quasi-satirical update of The Green Hornet will depend on a willingness to endure Rogen’s signature role, which never changes from one film to another: the amiable arrested adolescent with delusions of grandeur.
Having unwisely allowed their villainous adversary to trap them, the Green
Hornet (Seth Rogen, right) and Kato (Jay Chou) scramble to avoid being
crushed by several cement mixers, in one of this film's chaotic and often
unusual action scenes.

Suffice it to say, Rogen’s shadow looms quite large over this project. No surprise there, since he co-wrote the script (with Evan Goldberg) and took an executive producer credit, aside from making sure director Michel Gondry employed plenty of tight close-ups on his grinning, college-frat-boy mug.

Gondry’s involvement also raised numerous eyebrows, when this project was announced awhile back. The eclectic French director who brought us Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep has a surrealistic, dream-state approach to storytelling that seems at odds with the goofy atmosphere Rogen maintains during most of this film’s overlong (119 minutes) running time. Indeed, Gondry’s presence seems wasted: a “name” director brought in merely for his cult-film cred, rather than compatibility with the sort of mood Rogen clearly desired.

That said, Gondry gets to display his bizarre side a few times, during reality-heightened flashbacks when Rogen’s character struggles to employ the brain cells with which God endowed him at birth. (This effort at deep thinking generally is played for laughs, since an original idea would perish of loneliness in this man-child’s head.)

This poke at The Green Hornet joins last year’s Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in what could be termed the nerd wish-fulfillment response to conventional superhero roles: the rise of the geek action star. Despite a lack of physical stature, dietary habits that blend alcohol with processed snack foods, and a pathological aversion to working out, somehow these habitually picked-upon social misfits can don a costume (of sorts) and effortlessly deck muscle-bound goons while collecting little more than bruises in return.

Nice thought.

The difference here, though, is that the other two films are modern original concepts, whereas Rogen is messing with decades of established lore that began with a hit radio series created by George W. Trendle, Fran Striker and James Jewell in 1936. The show continued until 1952, during which time it spawned equally popular comic books and two early 1940s film serials, not to mention a much-loved (among the cognoscenti) 1960s TV series which, while it had trouble standing out alongside its companion show Batman, retains its cult status thanks to Bruce Lee’s supporting performance as butt-whomping sidekick Kato.

All that aside, time has not been kind to the character; the Green Hornet, as a second-tier crime fighter, lacks the name recognition that keeps the Superman, Spider-Man and Batman fresh in the public mind. I’ll go even further: Pretty much the only people likely to know the Green Hornet, these days, are the genre purists and old-time radio historians guaranteed to be highly annoyed by Rogen’s cheerful trashing of the character.

One wonders, as a result, why Rogen felt it necessary to stomp his oversize shoes all over a time-honored fictional hero, when he could just as easily have made up his own wish-fulfillment fantasy, and 99 percent of his fans – and the casual mainstream viewers who also stumbled into this eye-popping concoction during opening weekend – would neither have noticed, nor cared.

But that’s a topic for a different essay.

Rogen stars as Britt Reid, the lackadaisical, party-hearty son of newspaper magnate James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), a snarling, hands-on editor very much in the mold of Clark Kent’s Perry White or Peter Parker’s J. Jonah Jameson. To say that James is disappointed by his feckless son would be grotesque understatement; a flashback prologue shows the elder Reid ripping the head off his wailing young son’s favorite action-hero doll.

A rather silly gesture in an equally lame scene, all things considered, although it’s an accurate precursor of things to come.

Young Britt grows up to become Seth Rogen, while Daddy Reid becomes the defender of justice and morality in greater Los Angeles, particularly in the company of hard-charging District Attorney Scanlon (David Harbour, well remembered for his arresting supporting performance in 2008’s Revolutionary Road).

Alas, this sort of high-profile reportage attracts the wrong sort of attention from the vile Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, delivering a low-wattage retread of his sinister Jew hunter from Inglourious Basterds). Before we scarcely get to know him, James Reid is history, and Britt has inherited his father’s sizable estate, personal fortune and the Daily Sentinel, the large metropolitan family newspaper that seems to have survived the current downswing plaguing the real-world Fourth Estate.

Motivated solely by a childhood desire to “get back at bullies,” Britt impulsively encourages family employee and new boon companion Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) to go wild with his flair for genius engineering. Kato is an astonishing, one-man Impossible Missions Force: He can invent and build (in mere days) everything from custom coffeemakers to tricked-out muscle cars that James Bond would envy, and is blessed with a split-second “inner sense” that allows him to calculate how best to disarm, disable and dispense of half a dozen weapon-wielding pug-uglies.

Truly, an astonishing guy.

And a charismatic cinema presence, as well. Whenever Rogen’s antics threaten to overwhelm this film, Chou’s laid-back, much quieter approach saves the day. Indeed, Kato’s astonishing resourcefulness becomes this haphazard story’s best running gag; we can’t help loving the guy.

Accepting Kato’s willingness to be little more than Britt’s step-and-fetch-it gopher is a rather massive stretch, however, even if Rogen and Goldberg’s script pays minor lip service to the occasional tension in this dynamic. I spent the first two-thirds of this film wishing that Kato would knock Britt across the room, and – happily! – eventually got my wish. Even so, Britt’s condescending attitude veers toward seriously uncomfortable.

Cameron Diaz pops up in the eye-candy but mostly superfluous role of Lenore Case, Reid’s Gal Friday (secretary in the original radio series, research assistant and career criminologist in this more enlightened update). Diaz doesn’t bring much to this party, getting a few scenes in which to display her dazzling smile while generally looking dazed and confused (perhaps from trying to make sense of the script). Still, it’s nice to see Diaz turn feisty when Britt keeps trying to hit on Lenore.

That’s probably the saving grace, by the way: Rogen’s Britt does keep behaving badly, but at least various supporting characters often refuse to let him get away with it.

Anyway, having donned domino masks as the Green Hornet and Kato, Britt and his new best bud wreak havoc with Chudnofsky’s criminal empire, leading to several inevitable face-offs. The climactic melee is total derangement, even for this film, when Chudnofsky and his minions mount an all-out assault on the Daily Sentinel’s posh headquarters. I can’t recall ever having seen a massive car hurl into a tiny elevator before, hanging out dangerously from one side ... and then take said elevator to the next floor.

Gondry certainly deserves credit for having choreographed all this crazy mayhem, and earlier car chases and fist fights are staged with similar enthusiasm and style; unlike many superhero epics, the action scenes in this flick never get boring or tiresome. They’re simply too inventive and funny (allowing for a Blues Brothers-style tendency to destroy far too much personal property).

Indeed, the pyrotechnics and riffing between Rogen and Chou are pretty much all Gondry has to work with; Rogen and Goldberg’s script certainly doesn’t make any sense. Occasional dips into the real world bring the film to a groaning, thudding halt, as when Britt attempts to enforce his will upon Daily Sentinel executive editor Axford (Edward James Olmos, shamefully underused) and the other newspaper staffers.

I don’t know why he thinks otherwise, but Rogen can’t write to save his life. A better, stronger script – and firmer direction – would have helped this film immensely.

Ultimately, yes, this Green Hornet is an eye-popping giggle, some of the time: certainly enough of a mindless delight to offset the price of admission. But it’s not much of a movie, and it won’t have any legs; five years from now, it’ll just be another in the long line of big-screen superhero wannabes hoping – and failing – to hang onto Superman’s cape.

1 comment:

  1. This was entertaining, but the opening-weekend audience we saw it with was only mildly enthusiastic. The biggest problem is Seth Rogen. His voice and mannerisms are annoying, and he seemed very miscast. I found myself trying to think of who would have been better in the role.
    It'll make a gazillion dollars, but it seems like a missed opportunity.