Movie: The Green Hornet
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz
This superhero thing is getting old. (I know, I know, he’s not a superhero, he’s a masked vigilante, but frankly if bullets bounce off him, then the distinctions are pretty meaningless.)
The Green Hornet dates back to a radio serial from 1936 — which makes him older than Batman, and just a couple of years Superman’s junior. His more direct ancestry was the Lone Ranger, also a creation of Fran Striker and George W. Trendle (from 1933), and another pseudonymous crime fighter who hid behind a mask of presumed criminality.
Serialized in movies in 1940 and 1941, and in comic books throughout the ’40s, “The Green Hornet” found a new lease of life in an ABC TV series that ran three seasons from 1966 — with Van Williams as newspaper heir Britt Reid and a newcomer by the name of Bruce Lee as his faithful chauffeur and manservant, Kato.
Few sidekicks have stolen as much thunder (the character had already been purloined by Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers in the 1964 Inspector Clouseau comedy, “A Shot in the Dark”). If there’s curiosity about Seth Rogen’s credentials in the action hero department, it’s Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou who has to withstand comparison with Lee.
As it happens, Chou — making his first English-language feature film — is the biggest winner to emerge from a disjointed, fitfully amusing comedy scripted by Rogen and his “Superbad” partner Evan Goldberg, and directed by the whimsical French surrealist Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Chou sometimes mangles his lines, but whether he’s crafting the perfect cup of java or making time stand still in a slow-mo kung fu fight scene, he’s an effortless and charming scene-stealer.
Fans of Gondry’s inventive and often inspired work on music videos for Bjork, Massive Attack and others, as well as his films “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind Rewind,” will be the most disappointed in this largely anonymous, mainstream product. In retrospect, a filmmaker known for his spontaneous, quirky, lo-fi wit probably wasn’t the ideal match for a big-budget potential franchise picture.
The film’s post-production conversion to 3-D seems primarily designed to pump up Gondry’s understandably flat direction of too many ho-hum, talky sequences, though in fairness, the extra dimension is very cleverly applied in one standout exposition sequence, in which objects and people, as well as time, seem to be elongated. In fact, this may be the most “Gondry-esque” moment in the movie.
On the other hand, Rogen’s raucous, irreverent personality comes through loud and clear, both in the genuinely funny and even subversive jokes about what Cameron Diaz is doing in this boy-toy movie (not much — at 38, she’s 10 years older than Rogen and at least three times more mature), and in the sometimes shrill and juvenile banter between Britt and Kato.
The mixture of silly slapstick comedy and action came off with an edgier attitude in “The Pineapple Express.” Here you get the feeling the studio has reined everyone in and rounded off the rough edges. That applies to bad guy Christoph Waltz, too. The softspoken “Inglourious Basterds” Oscar-winner enjoys an amusing early encounter with a mystery guest star (one of this year’s Oscar nominees, I’m guessing), but the running gag about his lack of menace soon falls flat, perhaps because he really isn’t scary at all.
Of course, if you like this kind of thing “The Green Hornet” will do just fine until the next superhero comes along, but it doesn’t leave much to remember it by.