Friday, January 14, 2011
"The Green Hornet" began as a popular radio show in the 30s and was a short-lived TV show in the 60s. Now a big screen version of "The Green Hornet" (opening January 14 throughout San Diego and in 3D in select theaters) arrives and it pisses me off.
This big screen adaptation of "The Green Hornet" has been plagued with problems and bad press. Back in 2008 I was actually excited by the prospect of Asian superstar Stephen Chow helming the project and taking on the role of the Green Hornet's sidekick Kato. Chow would have had the right blend of comedy, action, and innovation to make this franchise fresh for a new generation. But "creative differences" eventually forced him to leave. That was the first thing about this film that pissed me off -- it lost a talented person who could have brought the skills necessary to make the adaptation a success. Based on what's up on the screen now, though, Chow should count himself lucky.
"The Green Hornet," in case you have forgotten the premise, involves Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), the heir to a newspaper empire. When Britt's father dies, he takes over the paper and tries to find some direction in what has been a life of partying. He decides (unconvincingly in this film) to become a crime fighter with the assistance of his dad's mechanic Kato (Asian pop star Jay Chou).
"The Green Hornet" delivered by director Michel Gondry and co-writer/star Seth Rogen reveals everything that can go wrong with a big budget superhero film. Although technically not a comic book film (there were "Green Hornet" comics but the character did not originate in a comic), the film will likely be lumped in with all the Marvel and DC films filling the studio slates. It also provides a list of all the things that can go wrong.
First, you need to have some affection and maybe even some reverence for the source material for a superhero film to work. The best superhero films – "Spider-Man," "Hellboy," "Blade" – were made by filmmakers who had a love for the comics and the characters they were adapting to the screen. I sense none of that from either Gondry or Rogen. "The Green Hornet" seems nothing but a joke to them. A good sense of humor is vital but not if it's at the expense of the original material. Rogen and Gondry -- coming across as smug hipsters slumming in the comic book/superhero genre -- reveal no sense of respect and just look at everything as mere comic fodder for cheap laughs. This is like a sitcom superhero film; all it's missing is a canned laugh track to make sure we get all the funny bits. Sam Raimi and Guillermo Del Toro are geeks in the best sense of the word and well suited to bringing a superhero to life on the screen. They weren't condescending to work in this genre, they relished it. Gondry, who does better with his own quirky material as in "Tokyo!" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," is simply all wrong to do this adaptation.
Second, you need to endow your superheroes with some kind of charisma or appeal. The 1978 "Superman" succeeded on almost entirely on the appeal and charm of Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. He made us believe a man could fly and could say "swell" and mean it. But neither Rogen nor Jay Chou as the Green Hornet's sidekick Kato is anywhere near that appealing. Plus, as the characters are written, they are unlikable. There's a running gag about Reid sexually harassing his secretary. The problem is it's a cheap joke and not like Tony Stark's character defining sexism in "Iron Man." "The Green Hornet" also suffers from the fact that Reid and Kato are constantly bickering with each other. This provides for occasional laughs early on but quickly grows wearisome. And what's the point of crime fighters who just want to beat the crap out of each other and insult each other. Rogen has proven far more successful with his Judd Aptatow collaborations in creating appealing bromance films in which the male characters show a more playful antagonism and genuine affection for each other. But the relationship here between Reid and Kato is unpleasant and grating. We really don't care about these guys and whether or not they succeed.
Rogen, whom I have liked in most of his other films, fails miserably here. It's almost like one of his slacker characters from a Judd Apatow film landed in a superhero movie by mistake and is relying on what he has badly learned from watching movies to guide him in his superhero shenanigans. He seems out of place and ill suited to the duties required of him. He has no character arc, and never seems to learn or grow so that we buy him as The Green Hornet.
Third, superhero movies must have a memorable villain. "The Green Hornet" at least casts smartly here. Oscar winner Christoph Waltz does the best he can with a lamely written part. He oozes insecure villainy and has some funny moments but he's not as much fun as Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor or even as deliciously evil as Jason Patric was in last year's "The Losers." Waltz's performance is probably the best thing in the film but it's not nearly enough to save the film. The only other attraction in the film is Black Beauty, the killer car Kato designs for the nocturnal crime fighting.
Fourth, comic book action films need... well, action. And the action needs to be kick-ass. Superheroes need to engage in some kick-ass action even if they are not that great at it to begin with. Spidey didn't fare too well in his first superhero outings but he got better and the action was a blast. In "The Green Hornet" the action is ridiculously lame. There is the pretense of 3D (don't even get me started on how bad the fake 3D is in the rest of the movie) and then a CGI effect of slowing down the action as Kato "stops" time to access where each weapon is and plot a course of action. This is not style, just a mere gimmick. And it's dull and unimpressive. Stephen Chow's action comedies pack more punch and flair, and I can only imagine what he might have done if he had been left in charge of this project. Gondry resorts to the Michael Bay school of action, which is when you don't know what to do just pump up the volume and blow crap up.
I have very fond memories of watching "The Green Hornet" TV show in the 1960s. It wasn't great but it did have Bruce Lee as Kato and he was not only memorable but also downright cool. The new film gives a nod to Lee by having Chou include a sketch of Lee in his book of designs and by trying out Lee's signature "come on" gesture to egg on opponents. The show, like the radio program before it, made use of classical music for its signature theme (enhanced by an Al Hirt trumpet solo). This new film only drops in that classic theme for a moment at the end and that too is a let down.
"The Green Hornet" (rated PG-13 for sequences of violent action, language, sensuality and drug content) is all that's wrong with superhero/comic book movies. It's simplistic, condescending, bloated, overly jokey, and assumes it has a built in audience that is easily pleased. It's films like these that make it difficult to talk seriously about comic book movies. It's a shame because last year we had some stellar comic book adaptations in "Kick-Ass," "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World," "RED," and even the more modest "The Losers." "The Green Hornet" is crass, unimaginative, unexciting, and not very funny. I was hoping it would at least be mindless fun but it ends up just being mindless. If it does well at the box office -- which may be the case because so little is opening and this is the only refuge from somber Oscar bait films – then we will be doomed to more crap like this.
Companion viewing: "The Green Hornet" TV Show, "Spider-Man," "Hellboy," "Kick-Ass"