Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: "The Green Hornet"

"The Green Hornet" is what happens when smart people set out to make a dumb movie.

Screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that there are only three kinds of films: Those that are meant to be good and are, those that are meant to be good and aren't, and those that were never meant to be any good. Depressingly, this last category is the largest, and where "Hornet" belongs.

It's less of a super-hero movie than a spoof of one. I'm all for making fun of a genre ripe for ridicule, but "Hornet" is loaded with action scenes and nervous energy and cool gadgets ... and not much you would really call funny.

I laughed out loud exactly once, and it was the very last scene in the movie where young newspaper tycoon Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) and partner Kato (Jay Chou) take extraordinary steps to preserve the fiction that the Green Hornet is a villain, instead of a hero. It's a genuinely clever bit, and I don't mind saying I got the joke a few seconds before everyone else did, and enjoyed a moment of solitary guffawing before everyone else joined in.

Interestingly, Green Hornet is one of the few super-heroes who didn't debut in a comic book. He started as a popular radio show in the 1930s, followed by some cheapie film serials starting in the early 1940s, and only then did he arrive in comic form. He's probably best known to recent generations for a '60s TV show.

Britt is a lazy, rich party boy living off the fruits of his father's newspaper empire, The Daily Sentinel in Los Angeles. But when dad dies suddenly and mysteriously, he discovers that his father had been ordering up all sorts of advanced weapons from Kato, his mechanic-slash-confidant. Britt, wallowing in booze and anonymous hook-ups, knows Kato only as the guy who makes him a really awesome cup of coffee every morning.

Rogen, who's made a career out of playing schlubby, chubby (though noticeably less so here) man-boys, is less charming when he's not playing a loser. Britt is supremely arrogant, not in a nasty way but with a presumption of superiority that drowns any affection the audience might develop for him.

After a late night hijinx to behead his father's statue monument turns into a dust-up with some thugs, Britt realizes he's found his calling: To become the city's masked protector. Soon he and Kato are cruising around in a highly modified 1965 Chrysler Imperial decked out with machine guns and missiles they dub Black Beauty.

The big pun of the movie is that Kato is the real muscle and brains of the outfit, but the Green Hornet gets all the attention. Kato is a genius with cars and weapons, and even invents a gas gun for the Hornet that knocks out his opponents. Kato can even take on six bad guys at once with his martial arts prowess, which allows him to see things in slow time.

Britt, of course, still thinks he's the top gun, and takes to dismissing Kato as his henchman or sidekick, leading to inevitable fisticuffs between them.

Neither has much of a notion how to act like a villain, though, so they recruit help from Britt's hot new secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz), who works at a temp agency but somehow knows more about journalism than the people working there. Britt and Kato take turns hitting on her, even though she's, like, really old and stuff. (She's 36.)

The heavy is played by Christoph Waltz, fresh of his Oscar win for "Inglourious Basterds." He plays Chudnofsky, head of L.A.'s gangland. Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Evan Goldberg, tries to make a joke out of the fact that Chudnofsky is so dull and un-flashy a villain. (James Franco, in a cameo as another gangster, dubs his fashion sense "disco Santa Claus.").

Later he renames himself Bloodnofsky and takes to wearing red in a lame attempt to dovetail on Green Hornet's sizzle. But it turns out the gag of a bad guy fretting about his lack of charisma quickly turns into a whiny bore.

Also hanging around is Scanlon (David Harbour), the smarmy district attorney who seems overly interested in how the Sentinel is portraying all the violence left in the Hornet's wake. We don't quite know what to make of him, but with his beady eyes and a name like Scanlon, we know it's just a matter of time before something nefarious turns up.

"The Green Hornet" is directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, whose work has not impressed me. (He's universally beloved by critics for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but not by me.) Perhaps he, Rogen and Goldberg think they've made a really smart, hip film that mocks the conventions of the super-hero movie while indulging in them.

But somewhere along the way of trying so hard to be cool, they made the movie they wanted to watch, rather than the one anyone else might want to.

1.5 stars out of four

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