Monday, January 17, 2011

The Green Hornet

I'm a big comic book fan, a big fan of heroic fiction, in general, and I tend to think it's a very, very important part of our cultural experience. I also think if we paid more attention to the kinds of lessons these simple morality plays are supposed to impart to our society, we might live in a better world. As it is, we get a lot of huffing and puffing about how stupid they are, and snarky comments.

Yeah, I think our heroic characters are important. That said, I don't need every story told about them to be as sweeping and thematically and emotionally resonant as The Dark Knight. Sometimes it's nice to have a story told that hews to the core of heroic fiction, but adopts a much lighter tone.

Hence, I do not have a problem with this new version of The Green Hornet. That's not to say that I think it's astoundingly good, just that the idea of a heroic story laced with humor doesn't turn me off completely.

The film, no matter how you slice it, has to walk a pretty fine line between appeasing two vastly different audiences. There's the Seth Rogan audience that wants a comedy, and then there's the Green Hornet audience, which most certainly does not.

Films about characters like this usually have a tough time, because, frankly, the "Green Hornet audience" ain't that big. It's difficult to make a case for fidelity to a character with almost no general public recognition. If you do know The Green Hornet, it's probably from the failed sixties TV series. It's known for, basically, two things; Bruce Lee played Kato, and it was set up as a less campy version of the Batman TV show, which was also running, and shared producers. If memory serves, it lasted 1 season.

Oh, of course there's more to it than that. The character has a pretty damn rich history and legacy, starting from it's creation as a radio drama hero. The creators were the same as those working on The Lone Ranger radio show, and they created The Green Hornet and Kato as modern versions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto. The characters, it's come to be understood, are related. Britt Reid's grandfather, Dan Reid, is the Lone Ranger's brother. Of course, now, the rights to these characters are owned by different people, so that connection will never be truly exploited.

The Hornet had a long run in radio and comics, even a movie serial, I believe. It's a character that's simmered along for decades, getting revived over and over again, without really achieving massive cultural awareness. In truth, it's a situation that really opens opportunities to play with the concept and character. Yeah, the die hards may get their panties in a bunch if you muck around too much, but...again, let's be honest, there ain't too many of them.

So, we come to this film. Staring Steh Rogan as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet, Jay Chou as Kato, with Cameron Diaz, Edward James Olmos and Christoph Waltz providing support. It's directed by Michael Gondry from a script by Rogan and Evan Goldberg, who also wrote Pineapple Express. Based on all this, I expected something a little light-hearted, and more than a little goofy. The press leading up to the release, however, was pretty insistant that they were taking the story seriously, and I was glad of that. It's more than possible to tell a story in a generally straight manner, and still allow flights of humor and goofy energy.

I think The Green Hornet generally get this right. Nobody's going to look to this film as a statement about our society, and our own culpability in the worst parts of it, like The Dark Knight. That said, the film, in it's own way, does honor the idea of doing something for your community and society, and plots a character arc of growth in conscience and duty for Britt Reid.

Now, it is Seth Rogan, and the script does hew to the sense of humor that was on display in Pineapple Express. Reid starts out as a young, party-boy billionaire playboy, living off the teat of his media mogul father. Frankly, the young billionaire playboy that Rogan cuts is probably vastly more accurate to what would exist right now than any version of Bruce Wayne we've ever seen. He's an absolute wastrel, throwing parties, bedding wealth groupies, and expecting a fresh cup of coffee to await him when he wakes every morning.

However, there is a nice pre-credits sequence involving a very young Britt, and his favorite toy, a (clearly MEGO-inspired) superhero doll. Where we see him berated by his father for fighting at school, despite the boy's pleas that he was trying to protect a girl from some bullies. The elder Reid (Tom Wilkinson) says something along the lines of "doesn't matter what you tried to do, you failed." I was actually really struck by this early scene, and how it informed everything that Britt became. If your father was more concerned with failure than, make no effort, and never fail. Yet, it also sets the seeds for a young man who took those hero myths I talked about earlier, to heart. He's a guy who wants to be something great, who wants to do good.

It's this underlying character motivation that carried me through a lot of the rougher patches of humor later in the film. Once you get past the modern, Rogen-oriented humor, the heroic quest, the sense of a character traveling from a weaker version of himself to a stronger one, is there. Not only is it there, but it's honored and played to in every way. Britt Reid needs to grow past his stunted relationship with his father, and forge his own path, his own destiny.

Some people won't want to go past The Hornet and Kato calling each other "bitch" to get to that. I understand that, and I'll be frank, there were moments when I wished they would stop with that crap and let the characters truly move to a heroic ideal. The script takes a cue from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, in that the "hero" is kind of bumbling, and the "sidekick" is the truly amazing one. In both films, there is a brief moment when our hero becomes all that he can be, but, frankly, the moment in Big Trouble, which is much, much shorter and more fleeting, hits harder. Which isn't to say that the moment in The Green Hornet doesn't work, it does, but it's not as effective.

Jay Chou is quite a find as Kato. He has an effortless physical grace, and is completely believable in the martial arts sequences. Gondry has a ton of special effects going on around him when he goes into action ("Kato-vision" he calls it), and the greatest compliment I can give to Chou is that he does not, ever, get lost in that stuff. The physical gifts are apparent, and while, myself, I prefer fight to be in wider shots so we can see what people are doing, Gondry, does effectively use the GCI stuff. It's not earth-shaking, by any reach, but it didn't muddle up the film.

Rogen and Chou have chemistry, and Chou, who could barely speak English during shooting, pulls off the role without ever looking uncomfortable. I liked them together, and the film very much positions them as a team, partners, not hero/sidekick. The banter is familiar if you know Rogen's writing (read: reminded me of Pineapple Express) but they play it well. Again, there are Hornet purists who are going to HATE that, and there's really not much to be said. This is the film, take it or leave it. For myself, I didn't hate it, but I think they overdid it at times. I do think it gives the film a unique identity and energy for this type of film. I mean, if you compare it to the TV show, the series was pretty stiff, even for the 60's. Lee and Van Williams come off as cardboard cutouts a lot of the time.

The supporting cast?

Why is Cameron Diaz in this film? I'm sure, at some point, some idiot studio exec said "we need a girl so they don't come off gay." So, stuff Cameron "magic ass" Diaz in there. It's a useless, thankless role. That said, I did like that she seemed to be set up as more of a romantic interest for Kato than The Hornet. A choice that is, marginally, different from the usual. Also, the riffs on Diaz's age...strangely came up just as I was thinking "huh, she's probably 10 years older than them." I note that only for the oddness value.

Edward James Olmos brings his usual macho gravity.

And then Christoph Waltz. Effective as hell in an early scene opposite an uncredited star in a cameo, shows up a couple more times to nice effect, then...they make a choice with the character that, strangely, echos events in Kick-Ass, if you saw that last year. At that point, I just sorta zoned out, and Waltz became just another one of the guys chasing the Hornet and Kato around. It's an interesting concept, a criminal mastermind motivated primarily by ego, but I felt like it was never properly exploited.

Let's see...The Black Beauty. The car is pretty incredibly designed, and they certainly use it effectively in the film. It's an offensive powerhouse, and they manage to make everything it does read as reasonable. Although, the sheer amount of offensive firepower that car can bring to bear did start me thinking about the violence in this film.

The Green Hornet is a really violent movie. Oh, not gore and beheadings, but, man, LOTS of people appear to get killed. This may be in line with the Green Hornet's history (I am no expert), but I was struck by how Britt and Kato seemed unconcerned with blasting not only "bad guys," but also police vehicles, into scrap with the Black Beauty. Plus, we have a major villain killed in a pretty seriously horrific way. Again, I found myself wishing for the characters to have a moment when they confronted the concept of the heroic ideal, and maybe didn't kill someone.

I did see this movie in 3-D. I had not intended to, but my schedule was such that I had to see the film in a certain time frame, and my option was the 3-D screening. As a post-shoot digital 3-D conversion, it's really, really nice work. Some of the best I've ever seen. that said, it's also inconsequential to the experience. I don't feel I got anything from seeing it in 3-D that I wouldn't have gotten from a regular 2-D screening. Save yourself  $2-$3, and just catch the regular show.

When it comes right down to it, your reaction to this movie is going to depend of a couple of factors. First, are you a Green Hornet purist? If so, you will likely have some problems. Are you uncomfortable with the mix of comic book heroism and slacker humor? If so, you will likely have problems with this movie. I had a good time with it, but I have no overriding attachment to these characters, or this concept. I rolled with it, and enjoyed the twists they took, while still keeping to the "heroic quest" blueprint.

I understand how the fans feel. If Captain America: The First Avenger comes out next summer and part of the concept is to laugh at Steve Rogers' faith in America, there will be some screaming. The Green Hornet definitely re-positions the characters, but I think it does it in a generally interesting and fun way. Not everything works, the film can be hit-or-miss, but does have interesting ideas and moments. So, unless you're a rabid Green Hornet or Seth Rogan fan, you can probably wait for video.


  1. I actually saw this on Friday matinee with a friend. I wasn't really fired up about seeing it. I had read a couple reviews and didn't have high expectations either. I had Friday off and felt like getting out of the house. So, it was a nice escape. My friend felt otherwise. He is such a fanboy about movies. He even questions how Wayne and Garth got their show back in Waynes World 2. So, he's not really keyed into the whole heightened sense of reality. So, he's been harping on about how bad it was. I say don't high expectations and you won't feel let down.

  2. Um...

    Tell your buddy Wayne's World is a public access show. Anybody can fill out the paperwork and get time on Public access. ;)

    As far as GH, I agree, it's not a film to have high expectations for.