Itís no secret that the latest adaptation of The Green Hornet had a troubled production history. Not only did the character rights jump from studio to studio, but directors and stars have come and gone too, the last notable defection being Hong Kong superstar Stephen Chow, who had signed on to direct and star as Kato alongside Seth Rogen, who was slated to play the title role. However, Chow bowed out due to creative differences, with Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind) taking the directorial reins instead.
Behind-the-scenes issues aside, any adaptation of The Green Hornet might be handicapped by at least two significant factors. First of all, when Bruce Lee stepped into the shoes of the Green Hornet's ass-kicking chauffeur Kato back in the 1960s television series, the character went from token ethnic sidekick to someone infinitely more interesting than the strait-laced, debonair Britt Reid a.k.a. the Green Hornet. So, one has to wonder: how do you make a superhero movie in which the sidekick is far more appealing than the hero?
The second and much more pressing issue might be the fact that audiences have been inundated with superhero movies Ė some great, some horrendous - over the last decade. As a result, the superhero ďorigin storyĒ has become almost a chore to watch, audiences having paid witness to a plethora of films bearing basically the same plot mechanics and story beats. And itís not like the Green Hornet is some beloved childhood icon on the level of Batman or Spider-Man. So, what reason is there for the average filmgoer to sit through what could be yet another generic superhero flick?
Credit should be given to co-screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg for finding a way to make an increasingly stale film genre seem fresh and inventive. Their script successfully hurdles the above-mentioned problems simply by acknowledging Katoís superiority as a crimefighter from the get-go and, in turn, having the Green Hornet be the exact opposite of the heroic gentleman heís been in past incarnations. This time around, the Green Hornet is not a square-jawed hero, but an incompetent, well-meaning schlub.
This drastic switch in the superhero/sidekick dynamic might appall fanboy purists, but itís a fresh approach that turns the conventional superhero origin story totally on its head. Although Seth Rogenís version of Britt Reid may suffer from some serious daddy issues, his reason for fighting crime isn't due to the standard list of motivations. Itís not a wholesome upbringing (Superman), an unquenchable thirst for vengeance (Punisher), or even unrelenting guilt (Spider-Man) that drives the Green Hornet. For the most part, he just thinks beating up bad guys would be a hell of a lot of fun.
This revamped take on the franchise introduces us to a young Britt Reid, who lives in the shadow of his father James (Tom Wilkinson), a rich, well-respected newspaperman and a self-proclaimed crusader for justice. Although the elder Reid sounds admirable on paper, he isnít going to win any Father of the Year awards, as the manís behavior toward his son is anything but warm and fuzzy. When little Britt is sent home from school for fighting with bullies who were picking on a little girl, James doesnít praise his son, but scolds him and rips the head off of his favorite toy. For whatever reason, this turns out to be a crucial moment in Brittís formative years.
To spite his father, the grown-up Britt (now played by Rogen) becomes a male version of Paris Hilton, eager to play the role of a bad boy socialite whose only achievement is appearing in the gossip columns. Brittís entire world changes when the elder Reid suddenly dies of an allergic reaction to a random bee sting. As heir to the Reid empire, Britt doesnít have the first clue on how to run the newspaper, initially turning over the business to his fatherís right-hand man Mike Axeford (Edward James Olmos). In another superhero movie, the death of the heroís father would spur the son to fight crime, but with James dead from a freak accident and not a gunmanís bullet, itís not vengeance that motivates Britt Ė itís coffee.
For many years, the pampered Britt has been enjoying a freshly-brewed cup of coffee every morning, and when he discovers that his coffee doesnít taste so good, he goes on a quest to track down the person responsible for his previous cups of joe. That person turns out to be Kato (Jay Chou), who once served as the elder Reidís mechanic. Eventually, the two men get drunk while swapping stories about how James Reid mistreated them both, and they soon hatch a plot to desecrate the manís memorial statue for revenge.
During this bit of misguided vandalism, Britt witnesses a group of muggers attacking a couple. He fails miserably when he tries to help, but Kato intervenes, revealing himself to be a master of the martial arts. Exhilarated by their brush with death, the two mismatched partners decide to stop wasting their potential and become crimefighters. The two are mistaken for criminals by the local news, but Britt decides theyíve just been given the perfect cover. He suggests that the duo pose as supervillains, thinking it'll give their new alter egos, Green Hornet and Kato, an advantage over the bad guys.
In a twist on the symbiotic relationship between Superman and the Daily Planet, Britt Reid uses his fatherís paper, the Daily Sentinel, to pump up the Green Hornetís reputation as a villain. With the unknowing assistance of the newly-hired Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), a criminologist-turned-temp secretary, Britt and Kato hatch a plan to take over the Los Angeles crime scene. Unfortunately for them, the cityís resident crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) is irritated with the Green Hornet and Kato's intrusion on his turf, insuring a head-on collision for all the parties involved - albeit with a few unexpected twists and turns.
Whether or not you like The Green Hornet may hinge entirely on your attitude towards Britt Reid and/or Seth Rogen. George Clooney, Greg Kinnear, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Wahlberg and Vince Vaughn were all been considered for the part of the Green Hornet so you can see how the insertion of Seth Rogen in the role is a big departure from how the character has been previously portrayed. In Rogenís interpretation, the character comes across as undeniably selfish, lazy, and loutish. Not to mention a bit stupid.
Even so, I found Rogenís brimming enthusiasm to be not only infectious, but oddly endearing. While Britt Reid may start out as the worst waste of space imaginable Ė the type of spoiled, pampered rich kid that populates todayís reality TV and gossip sites Ė Rogen makes you believe that his character wants to be a better person and help others. Heís just too immature to do it in a remotely intelligent way. The character is annoying at times, but thatís largely by design, as our sympathies seem to always be with Kato. One need only witness the startling ďGet me coffeeĒ scene for evidence. Whatever one thinks of the character, Rogenís energy and comic timing are undeniably part of what gives the film momentum.
Of course, Hong Kong cinema fans are probably less concerned with Seth Rogenís Green Hornet than they are interested in Jay Chouís take on Kato, a role indelibly associated with the late, great Bruce Lee. Believe it or not, Jay Chou owns this movie. Whatever his difficulties with the English language may be, Chou emerges as the covert leading man of the film. Although Bruce Lee may never be far from oneís mind while watching Kato, Chou possesses a quiet, understated charisma that contrasts well with Rogenís manic over-exuberance as the Green Hornet.
Cameron Diaz rounds out the main cast in the largely thankless role of Lenore Case. Despite playing a somewhat diminished role, Diaz proves herself to be a real trooper, making it hard to tell whether or not the actress is miscast or simply misused. Actually, it could be a little of both. Lenore Case serves two functions: she acts as the ďbrainsĒ of the Green Hornetís operation, albeit without knowing that sheís funneling her expertise directly to the alleged supervillain himself; and also, she causes tension between Britt and Kato. Unfortunately, neither of those angles proves very fulfilling, as she seems incidental to the narrative. The film even drops a potential romantic subplot between Lenore and Kato, wasting what could have been a very compelling love triangle. Itís a missed opportunity that could have given the film an added dimension (and not in the 3-D sense).
Also disappointing is how the film uses Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), who is occasionally amusing as Chudnofsky. While enjoying his position as the number one crime boss in Los Angeles, Chudnofsky is also experiencing a mid-life crisis. The man constantly worries about whether or not he seems menacing enough to others and tries to improve his image by soliciting advice from henchmen and rivals. Unfortunately, the idea of a having the filmís heavy be a neurotic arch-villain turns out to be much funnier than the actual execution.
While mixed-to-negative reviews of the film may indicate otherwise, I found The Green Hornet to be a surprisingly fun popcorn movie that works in spite of itself. While largely flawed and even sloppy at times, The Green Hornet holds together due to the comic charm of its two seemingly mismatched leads. I donít know what the filmís chances are at the box office, but Iím all in favor of a sequel. But to be fair, it better be called The Green Hornet and Kato. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)