Here is a case of a producer letting down his writer and star, and the producer, writer, and star are all the same guy. That guy would be Seth Rogen, the charming comedian (and creator) of movies like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” Rogen the writer’s script for “The Green Hornet” is the perfect set-up for Rogen the actor: an ordinary guy with no superpowers or skills decides to fight crime so he’s forced to rely on his sidekick Kato to provide him with weapons, gadgets, and muscle. The film is all about the interplay between The Hornet and Kato, their relationship and their rivalry. In other words, this “Hornet” is superhero movie as buddy comedy, catnip for a gifted improviser like Rogen.
Herein lies the problem: in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” Rogen partnered with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. In “Pineapple Express,” he worked with the versatile James Franco. In “Green Hornet,” Rogen the producer saddled Rogen the actor with Jay Chou, a handsome Taiwanese pop star with a limited grasp of English. That leaves us with a buddy film starring an exceptional improviser and a guy who can’t improvise because he can’t speak the language. No surprise, then, that Hornet and Kato’s friendship, so central to the plot of the film, feel forced and uneven.
“Forced and uneven” is actually a good way to describe this version of “The Green Hornet.” It was directed by the Michel Gondry, the talented and inventive filmmaker behind “Eternal Sunshine and the Spotless Mind” and “Be Kind Rewind,” but bears little of his personal stamp. It doesn’t have the handmade quality or visual dexterity of “a Gondry film.” Instead it feels like “a Neal H. Moritz film” — he’s one of the producers of “The Green Hornet” as well as “The Fast & the Furious” and “xXx” franchises. It’s loud, slick, and relies heavily on pop music and sleight-of-hand editing to keep the film moving so fast audiences don’t have time to notice how little they care about the characters or story.
Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg’s take on the material, though, is smart. Rogen plays Britt Reid, the do-nothing heir of newspaper tycoon and Hall of Fame bad father James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). When James dies a hero, the vindictive Britt can’t stand it. So he convinces Kato, the guy who makes his coffee in the morning who also happens to be an incredibly gifted mechanic, inventor, and martial artist, to help him desecrate his father’s grave. Along the way the pair accidentally break up a mugging, and decide they’ve found a new calling in life as crimefighters. But while The Green Hornet gets all the attention, Kato’s both the brains and the brawn behind the operation. That stirs up enough jealousy to rip the team apart.
The unspoken truth of The Green Hornet’s 1960s TV show was the fact that he, the nominal star, was frequently upstaged by his much cooler sidekick (a very young but already awesome Bruce Lee). Turning that simmering tension into the focal point of the film is a stroke of genius. So is the spin on the Hornet’s M.O.: his whole schtick is that he’s a hero who poses as a villain in order to destroy the underworld from within. But really that conceit doesn’t make a ton of sense (why not just outwardly act like hero?) and it makes a lot more sense that this none-too-brilliant plan would be formulated by a guy like Rogen’s Hornet, who’s kind of a dope.
In Rogen and Goldberg’s conception, Britt and Kato are less superheroes than well-armed anarchist pranksters, the dudes from “Jackass” with gas guns and a missile launching car. Britt and Kato like to claim they’re “helping people” but we never see them help anyone after that first night. Instead, they tool around Los Angeles in their Black Beauty limousine, blowing up traffic cameras and beating up drug dealers for kicks.
That’s a pretty subversive notion for the superhero genre, but the film glosses over it on the way to another big action sequence. In fact, “The Green Hornet” often plays like a mainstream movie uncomfortably fashioned from iconoclastic raw materials. Quirky ideas are tossed out and then immediately abandoned for the sake of pacing and accessibility. This, too, plays against Rogen’s strength, which is to dawdle and riff, rather than rush. The finished film plays like the cinematic equivalent of a cobblestone road that’s been repaved with blacktop. The ride’s smooth, but at the expense of the character and personality. That’s certainly true of the film’s generic villain, Chudnofsky (“Inglourious Basterds”‘ Christoph Waltz). Wisps of a subplot involving an aging crime lord facing obsolence remain, but the meat of his arc must have gotten lost along the way from script to screen. Rogen and Chou get plenty of screentime, but for whatever reason — temperament, acting style, language barrier — they never quite connect.
A few moments have that Gondry touch. There is one truly outstanding sequence, a montage that takes full advantage of the film’s otherwise forgettable 3D effects to showcase the spread of information through the Los Angeles underground. And Gondry’s speed-shifting approach to Kato’s badass fighting style is both playful and exciting. But a lot of this movie looks like it could have been directed by anybody. The idea of a Rogen/Gondry collaboration was intriguing — and I would be interested to see what these men could do together with total creative freedom — but the results this time don’t come close to equaling their potential. In that sense, “The Green Hornet,” a film about how easily a promising and unusual creative partnership can blow up in the partners’ faces, is the perfect metaphor for itself.
(NOTE: I have gone this entire review without mentioning Cameron Diaz, the female lead of this movie. Truth be told, I had forgotten Diaz was even in the movie until just now, which says quite a bit about her role and her performance.)