Hardcore fans of Green Hornet are too busy being fed mulched foods in nursing homes to get much up in arms about any changes to the character and the mythology that Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg made, but if these old radio show fans did see the movie I think they would realize the duo pulled off the impossible in making the character feel like a product of the modern day. Dressed in a suit and being chauffered around aren’t the hallmarks of your usual superhero, but somehow it makes sense in the film (even if the reasoning to get Rogen’s Hornet into the backseat isn’t convincing). This version of Britt Reid is a little different from past versions and past superheroes; it isn’t a radioactive spider or an exploding planet or a mugger’s bullets that get him started in the superhero business - it’s a cappuccino. When Reid’s father, a billionaire media magnate, dies suddenly from a bee sting, the inveterate partyboy finds himself more adrift than usual. And then one morning his usual cappuccino doesn’t arrive; investigating he discovers it’s because one of the members of the household staff that Britt laid off after the funeral was his dad’s mechanic/servant/sidekick, Kato, who invented and operated a hypercappuccino machine.
Kato reveals many of Britt’s father’s secrets, including a weapons cache and some souped up cars. The two begin hanging out and come across the idea of being heroes accidentally - while vandalizing Britt’s father’s grave (there are some daddy issues here, but don’t worry, they get worked out in a perfunctory manner) they come across thugs mugging innocents and Britt leaps into action. Poorly. Thankfully Kato, a martial arts superstar, is there to help out, and thus is born a crime fighting career.
It’s the relationship between these two that fuels The Green Hornet; so much so that everything else in the film is treated as secondary, including the main villain. Which is a problem; Christoph Waltz’ Chudnofsky seems to be occupying a completely separate film for most of the movie’s runtime, and not a particularly engaging movie at that. Chudnofsky’s motivation is to shore up his power base in the city; in the changing times many of the criminal elements no longer find the soft-spoken villain intimidating. But Waltz doesn’t seem to know what to make of any of this, and he’s playing the character with a milquetoast dryness that isn’t funny or interesting. When The Green Hornet and Kato finally come into direct conflict with Chudnofsky it just feels like the mechanics of the plot dragging everybody along, and not like an organic development.
But if Chudnofsky and Waltz are pointless and flailing in the film, Cameron Diaz is inexplicable. Her character has pretty much nothing to do, with her character never really becoming a love interest or a true partner in the crime fighting proceedings. As an employee at the newspaper Britt inherits after his dad dies she helps him do research into the criminal underworld, but this is a role that Edward James Olmos’ editor character should have. Instead Olmos is relegated to an overblown cameo.
The casting of Diaz is nearly disastrous, and the movie seems to know it. How else can you explain the fact that the script actually calls for Britt Reid to make a joke about how old Diaz is? It’s an uncomfortable moment, and it only underscores the fact that this woman doesn’t belong here. That the film doesn’t even bother making her a romantic lead is the nail in her coffin; Britt makes obnoxious come ons, but they all feel half-hearted. I imagine that should The Green Hornet get a sequel, Diaz’s character will have mysteriously disappeared.
But the biggest problem for me is Rogen’s character. I just hated Britt Reid and never came around; he’s supposed to be a shallow cretin, but he’s also supposed to be a lovable cretin, and one who changes by the end. Except his change never registered for me, and his big moments at the end feel like they’re taking the attention away from the more capable and more likable Kato. Britt Reid is kind of a shit, and I couldn’t stand him. That’s coming from a longtime Seth Rogen partisan.
But Reid is tolerable when Kato is around, because Kato seems to be almost as annoyed by him as I am. Their relationship is interesting and fun; Rogen and Goldberg really understand guy dynamics, and here they explore one we see rarely - a relationship where one guy doesn’t really know why he likes the other guy but he does anyway. Kato likes Britt against his own best instincts, and he often gets exasperated with him; the way the script is set up it’s the fact that Kato comes to love Britt that should win me over, but it never quite plays out that way.
Jay Chou isn’t comfortable acting in English, but his best moments aren’t spoken. He delivers terrific glares and irritated looks, and the few martial arts scenes he gets are completely kick ass (I think I would have like The Green Hornet exponentially more if it included one more great martial arts scene with Kato; the film feels one scene short). Chou is the living heart of the film, and Kato is one of the secret ingredients that makes The Green Hornet work.
The other is Michel Gondry; the idea of Gondry making a big budget superhero movie was baffling when announced, and it isn’t any more obvious after seeing the film, but the director does manage to insert himself in the film. There are many scenes that are sort of anonymous, but every now and again a Gondry flourish will arise - a time lapse shot, for instance - and you’re reminded of the director’s playful sense of visuals. There was much made of KatoVision in the pre-release hype - this is the way that Kato sees the world in a fight, where he targets enemies and objects - and to be honest it isn’t much more than the cinematic version of Red Dead Redemption’s Dead Eye targeting mode, but it’s handled well and with flair by Gondry.
The Green Hornet represents an interesting moment in Gondry’s career; he’s proven that he can make a big budget mainstream movie without getting completely lost in the machinery, and none of the film’s problems feel like they’re his problems - they all seem to arise from the script, or from casting that feels like corporate meddling. But should we be celebrating the fact that one of the most unique voices in film can tamp down his specificity to fit into the blockbuster mold? The fact that he can is surely great for Gondry’s career, but what does it mean for his art?
I expected The Green Hornet to be nothing less than a disaster, and I was wrong. It’s amiable and well made and charming in its own way. It’s got problems - big ones - but it also has things that work effortlessly. There’s not enough action, but what action the film has is great. The movie even manages to create serialized cliffhanger sequences that recall the franchises’ earliest days. And the central relationship - even with my disdain for Britt Reid - works. Better than you expect but not quite as good as you hope it could have been, The Green Hornet is diverting and fun and pleasant. In fact that pleasantness is what will probably keep the film from becoming just a historical footnote; The Green Hornet is an easy watch and I imagine it’s a movie that will find itself as background noise in many a Blu-Ray player next year, and as a remote control roadblock when stumbled across on cable during rainy weekend afternoons.