Friday, 14 January 2011

Review - the buzz on 'The Green Hornet'

What a curious moment the arrival of this film represents. To film geeks, it's an "at last!" Whilst I suspect to the general audience it's more, "what the hell's this then?"

For those who came in late, the story of Britt Reid - wealthy heir to a newspaper empire who dons a mask to battle evil, with the assistance of his kung-fu master chauffeur Kato - has been hobbling its way through development hell for a very long time. I won't lie to you, I remain utterly unfamiliar with the radio series, comic books and TV show (although, of course, I know Bruce Lee played Kato), but over the last decade or so I've seen the intermittent reports that George Clooney and Jet Li would be portraying the heroes; then that brief period when Kevin Smith promised it would be his next feature after Jersey Girl (apparently going so far as to offer the lead to Jake Gyllenhall), before he got cold feet and went back to his roots with Clerks 2. And then, when Seth Rogen got involved and managed to get Stephen Chow on board to play Kato and to direct, I was one among many foaming at the mouth at the prospect of the mad genius behind Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle having a Hollywood budget to play with. Alas, that was not to be either. And so it was that directing duties came to be taken by the unlikely candidate of Michel Gondry, leaving us wondering what the hell an action film from the seasoned music video master and subsequent director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would look like.

So it's a blockbuster superhero movie from an experimental indie director, written by and starring a comedy actor who (unless we count The Pineapple Express) has also never done action, with a co-star who's an unknown in the west, a villian played by a recent Oscar winner also yet to fully make a mark on the western market, and female support from one of Hollywood's hitherto most bankable actresses who hasn't had a real hit in quite some time. And all under the watchful eye of the producer behind The Fast and the Furious franchise.

All this considered, it's no surprise that The Green Hornet is an odd movie. But does it work...?

Well, it all rather depends. Ask yourself now - do you like Seth Rogen? For the record, I do; I think his work in Knocked Up was one of the finest comedy performances of the decade, which suggested a more dramatic future for the man. Likewise, his writing on Superbad (with Evan Goldberg, also co-writer and executive producer here) proved he was a comedic talent to be reckoned with. Even so, there was a pretty big question mark over how this would translate to leading man action hero material. And the answer to that question - it really doesn't. The Green Hornet is first and foremost a comedy, and while Rogen has lost quite a bit of weight and gets to bust a few fighting moves here and there, his focus remains on the wisecracks on which he has made his name. Britt Reid is a smug, dim-witted loudmouth at the start of the film, and he's still a smug, dim-witted loudmouth at the end. The practical downside of this is, if you didn't like Seth Rogen before, this film will do nothing to change your mind.

The real superhero of the movie, then, is Kato. He's the one with the skills; he designs and constructs the cars and the weapons, he kicks bad guy ass, and he makes very good coffee. Honestly, it's hard to envisage Stephen Chow in this role now: not only is Chow noticeably older than Rogen, but he's more accustomed to playing the more Britt Reid-like roles, the overconfident buffoons. Kato is a more suave character, more justified in his self-confidence, and more dignified with it. Disregarding some difficulties with speaking English, Jay Chou does a pretty good job. Happily, Rogen and Goldberg have avoided the usual Hollywood trap of painting any Asian character as an asexual Zen monk with heightened spiritual sensibilities. Cooler he may be, but in many respects Kato and Britt are quite evenly matched, both talking equal amounts of trash, both hitting on Cameron Diaz's Lenore.

On which note, yes, your instincts are correct: Cameron Diaz has very little reason to be in this film. But again, Rogen and Goldberg have the good sense not to reduce her to a love interest and/or damsel in distress. Instead, she's basically exposition lady; in line with their plan to pose as villians in order to infiltrate the world of crime, Britt and Kato utilise Lenore's credentials as a criminology student to inform what they should do next. What this of course emphasises is that Britt and Kato really are just making it up as they go along; they like the idea of being superheroes, but don't really have much of a clue of just what that entails, hence they quickly find themselves up to their necks in shit they are not equipped to deal with. Hmm... doesn't sound all too different to Kick-Ass, does it? Yes, that movie covered very similar ground to this one, and did so in a far more ballsy and unhinged fashion. As such, The Green Hornet can't avoid feeling a wee bit stale by comparison.

This is not to say that The Green Hornet isn't just a bit ballsy and unhinged too. As PG-13/12A movies go, this is pretty full-on stuff. Britt and Kato aren't just knocking out thugs and leaving them for the cops; they're flat-out killing people, left right and centre. Inevitably given the rating this film doesn't have as much blood as Kick-Ass, but a fair few more bullets, car wrecks and explosions. You won't find any musings on great power and great responsibility here. Nor does The Green Hornet shy away from swearing as so many do these days; nobody drops the F-bomb, but otherwise Rogen's spouting as many profanities as ever. All this considered, parents might want to give careful consideration as to whether their little ones can handle it. For the rest of us, it may just leave us wishing they'd thrown caution to the wind and gone into R/15 territory instead.

As for how Gondry fares; well, he certainly crafts some good action sequences with greater flair than many. Even so, I rather doubt this will lead to him making more big-budget tentpole pictures. He seems most assured in the more outlandish moments, notably a very cool use of split-screen midway through. Likewise, it seems doubtful Rogen will get offered more action hero parts off the back off this; and I sadly suspect that Hollywood will not coming knocking on Chou's door either, given his clear unease with English. The one person this movie would seem to indicate a clear future for is Christoph Waltz, given that he's soon to be following this up with another bad guy role in a new version of The Three Musketeers from - oh dear - Paul WS Anderson. Yes, Waltz does seem very likely to be a go-to villian in years to come, but I hope the parts he gets in the future are stronger than Chudnovsky. Predicated on a few key gags that never quite work - insecurity about his age, his name, and whether he's scary enough - it's a part that utterly pales in comparison to Waltz's star turn in Inglourious Basterds.

Does The Green Hornet make for an entertaining (if somewhat overlong) two hours? Sure. Will it be one you'll want to revisit? Unlikely. Yes, given the disparate nature of the artists involved it was always going to be an odd film, but in this case the entertainment value does not really outweigh the oddity. Still, it's often pretty funny and fairly exciting, so keep your expectations in check and you may have fun.

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