(A brief break from 1938 for a look at another new release.)
The opening scene of The Green Hornet is great fun. The dour but business-like Chudnofsky, head of the Los Angeles crime world (Christoph Waltz), faces off against a young up-and-comer Danny Clear (James Franco in an uncredited cameo). Waltz and Franco have great fun hamming it up – Franco is cocky and brash while Waltz quietly digests the young man’s insults. The head of Los Angeles crime with the unpronounceable name is washed up, he dresses badly, and, to top it off, he isn’t scary. We watch Waltz’s Chudnofsky shrink with each slur, but Clear’s assertion that Chudnofsky isn’t scary anymore – well that’s too much. He has to show the Young Turk that not only is he still scary, but Clear should be very scared right now.
The energy and humor Waltz and Franco give us in this opening scene, though, quickly dissipates into just another pointless, conventional action-adventure that takes itself too seriously. Maybe, instead of ignoring The Green Hornet’s camp 1960s television history the way Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan did with Batman, the movie should have embraced it. There is a decent action movie lurking somewhere in there, but it’s wasted on the paint-by-numbers script. Many good elements are in place like Waltz’s interminably insecure Chudnofsky and the energetic Jay Chou as the Green Hornet’s partner Kato, but the movie suffers from two flaws, one that could have been fixed, the other fatal.
The first flaw, the one that could have been fixed had someone decided to expend the energy on it, is the script. Everything we would expect is here with little innovation or creativity. Characters are flimsily developed and that would have been fine had the screenplay not depended on the development of Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) from an irresponsible playboy to a crime fighting hero. The first act is especially thin. We rush through exposition, getting a taste of character development and backstory, but only what we will need to put the pieces together at the end. It feels like writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were anxious to get to the action without deviating too far from the formula. What fun these guys could have had if they had truly thought through the implications of a rich kid using his fortune to fight crime in the real world. And, as I suggested above, melding the real world with the movie’s television legacy could have been a hoot. Rogen and Goldberg took the easy way out and delivered a connect-the-dots screenplay.
The second major flaw, unlike the first, was unfixable: Seth Rogen. His one-note, grating buffoonery may have sounded appropriate for the character (though I don’t know why), but Rogen isn’t a good enough actor to do anything with it. The movie screeches to a halt every time he is on screen and, since he’s the titular lead of the move, that’s a major problem. He’s creepy around women, is demeaning and racist toward Kato (did we really come to The Green Hornet to see Britt and Kato in an almost five-minute fight scene?), and overestimates his own charm. Rogen mistakes braying with acting. I wonder when directors and studios are going to realize that Rogen is a supporting actor at best. Are we so desperate for leading men that they feel they have to go with a weak actor whose shtick got old half way through The 40 Year old Virgin?
On the plus side Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou brings an attractive energy to Kato, but the script also fails him. Why not pursue the chemistry between Kato and Britt’s secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz)? It’s one of two things: either the sidekick can’t get the girl, or we’re still a little squeamish about the “yellow peril” snatching up our white women. Giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt I will opt for the former, but that means we have another case of Rogen and Goldberg playing it safe, never challenging the conventions of a superhero script in a way they were in a unique position to do. Chou has done some bad movies in Asia, but why did they have to make his first Hollywood film this rotten?
Director Michel Gondry does his best but he doesn’t push the envelope either. He constructs some striking aesthetics including an invigorating split screen descent into Los Angeles’ underworld and an unusually artistic visual journey through Britt’s thought process as he pieces together what really happened. The rest is pretty much by the book. Like the good work we get from Waltz and Chou, Gondry is ultimately undermined by the feeble script and Seth Rogen’s tiresome screen presence.
This seems to have been something of a passion project for Seth Rogen (aim high, my friend); he co-wrote and executive produced it. The passion, though, does not come through either for the radio program or the television show. There’s a brief nod to Bruce Lee who played Kato on the show and we’re treated to Al Hirt’s invigorating rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee which was the show’s theme. (It did have a life before Quentin Tarantino lifted it for Kill Bill.) But these references don’t distinguish the overall mess. I wish Rogen, Goldberg, and Gondry had embraced the challenge, really played with the world of the Green Hornet rather than cynically using the franchise for a quick paycheck. The cultural legacy of the Green Hornet deserves better.