Film Review: The Green Hornet

While it sports a few spare parts that don’t quite click, this souped-up superhero vehicle runs smoothly enough thanks to a savvy sense of humor and the charisma of its central crime-fighting duo.

He may have cultivated a reputation as a Hollywood outsider, but Michel Gondry has long expressed affection for mainstream studio fare. This is, after all, the same filmmaker who calls Back to the Future one of his all-time favorite movies and based an entire film—2008’s underappreciated Be Kind Rewind—around creating lo-fi remakes of high-concept blockbusters.

With The Green Hornet, Gondry finally gets the chance to helm his very own big-budget tentpole release, starring a semi-obscure crime-fighting vigilante (portrayed in this incarnation by Seth Rogen) who is best remembered for a short-lived TV series that aired over 40 years ago. It’s only fitting that a cult filmmaker like Gondry be the one to reintroduce a cult property like The Green Hornet to contemporary moviegoers, and he goes about this task with his characteristic playfulness and offbeat wit.

Despite being handed a budget almost twice the size of his previous four features combined, the director doesn’t go overboard on the bells and whistles that are often tacked onto superhero spectacles. Aside from certain studio-mandated concessions to the marketplace—most notably a shoddy 3D conversion—Gondry keeps the movie grounded in a convincing, if ever-so-slightly skewed, reality by prizing practical effects and props over CGI and actual locations over studio soundstages. His primary digital F/X indulgence takes the form of what’s being called “Kato-Vision,” which gives audiences a first-person look at the martial-arts prowess of the title character’s sidekick, Kato (a role made famous by Bruce Lee in the ’60s TV series and embodied here by Taiwanese pop idol/actor Jay Chou). It’s a fun little flourish that gives the action sequences some added oomph while remaining consistent with the film’s lively comic spirit.

That spirit is owed as much to Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script as it is to Gondry’s nimble direction. The Green Hornet marks the duo’s third produced screenplay and by now they’ve established a distinctively meta M.O., writing films that start out tweaking a certain genre—be it the teen sex comedy in Superbad, the ’80s buddy action comedy in Pineapple Express or the comic-book movie here—before becoming the kind of film it was previously poking fun at.

In fact, Hornet’s first half can be viewed as a good-natured parody of such super-serious superhero origin stories as Batman Begins. Like Bruce Wayne, Britt Reid (Rogen) is the scion of a wealthy family who uses his considerable resources to launch a career as a masked vigilante following the untimely death of his newspaper magnate father (Tom Wilkinson). But Britt isn’t driven by vengeance or a burning desire to see justice done—a party-hearty guy by nature, he just wants to have a good time and keep pissing off his spoilsport old man. His partner Kato’s motives aren’t exactly virtuous either; for this tinkerer, crime-fighting is primarily an excuse to design and build lots of neat gadgets, from gas guns to a slick car that’s tricked out with flame-throwers and Ben Hur-style spikes hidden in the tires.

Goldberg and Rogen get a good deal of comic mileage out of their heroes’ decidedly unheroic attitudes, as well as the not-so-subtle tension between the clumsy Hornet and his far more skilled sidekick. After an unsuccessful detour into darker territory with 2009’s Observe and Report, Rogen is back in his comfort zone as a performer, once again playing the self-absorbed man-child who desperately needs to grow up and get a clue. Chou wisely doesn’t try to match his co-star’s bluster, instead earning laughs with deadpan reactions and graceful bits of physical comedy.

The Green Hornet is at its best when it just lets this dynamic duo blunder through their new vocation, bickering, screwing up and catching bad guys almost by accident. Because this is ultimately another comic-book movie, though, convention dictates that there be both a super-villain and a city in peril and when those plot mechanics kick in, the wheels start to come off the ride. In a seemingly inspired casting choice, Gondry has tapped Christoph Waltz—who rocketed to fame last year as wily Nazi colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds—to play the Hornet’s nemesis, a crime lord named Chudnofsky who runs the L.A. underworld, but suffers from vague feelings of inferiority. Sadly, neither the director, nor the writers, nor Waltz himself seem entirely certain who this character is and whether he’s supposed to be funny or deadly serious.

Cameron Diaz faces a similar problem as the film’s lone female character, intrepid secretary Lenore Case. While it’s established early on that she’s not going to be a serious love interest for Britt, she’s still given little personality beyond a form-fitting wardrobe.

After largely avoiding traditional action set-pieces, the film climaxes with a large-scale car chase that seems designed to outdo the famous automobile pile-up that ends The Blues Brothers. Amidst all the mayhem, Gondry loses the film’s comic rhythm, in much the same way that the tone of Pineapple Express ran away from director David Gordon Green in that movie’s climactic shootout. (Both there and here, it’s more than a little jarring to see the jovial, accidental heroes suddenly start wasting bad guys like pros.) Should the Green Hornet and Kato return for another big-screen adventure, the filmmakers would be wise to focus more on the laughs and less on the derring-do.