Last year on our podcast, Running Dialogue, /Film’s Russ Fischer described Iron Man 2 as a “happy drunk”, which was a fitting description for the sloppy, yet joyful superhero movie. I would like to steal his phrase and begrudgingly give him credit as I think Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet is a happy drunk as well as a happy stoner and at times a happy cokehead. The film is colorful, vibrant, and has enough of Gondry’s stylistic flourishes without becoming oppressively whimsical. Even when the film starts to drag or the plot becomes muddled and we’re forced to spend time with underdeveloped characters, Seth Rogen’s infectious enthusiasm keeps the mood of the picture light and fun even though his character is an unethical, egotistical jerk. The Green Hornet is a film that succeeds in spite of itself and it’s a happy drunk that won’t leave you with too much of a hangover (despite the unnecessary 3D).
Britt Reid (Rogen) is the wealthy playboy son of newspaper magnate James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). When his father dies from an apparent bee sting, Reid is grieving and in his grief wants to know why his morning coffee tastes like shit. A maid mentions that Britt fired his father’s staff (in a scene we never see for a reason that’s never explained), which included his father’s mechanic and chief coffee-maker, Kato (Jay Chou). Reid summons Kato to the mansion and the two begin a friendship where we see that Kato can pretty much do anything. The two agree that James was kind of a dick and they go to cut the head off his father’s statue. That little misadventure leads them to accidentally protecting a couple from a gang of muggers. Giddy from the thrill, the two decide to become undercover superheroes. Their plan: pretend to be bad guys so that they can get in close with the real bad guys and take them down.
So how does Britt plan to make a name for his alter ego, The Green Hornet? By using his pull as his newspaper’s new owner to manipulate the news and demand front-page Green Hornet coverage. In the meantime, Kato, who is also a martial arts expert, will pimp out the cars, and Britt will pick out the outfits. It’s a fun twist on the superhero story: the character’s main motivation doesn’t come out of a deep-seated desire for justice and his sidekick is the real hero. But they’re both kind of petty and childish and if it weren’t for Kato’s martial arts ability and Britt’s resources, they would be ridiculously out of their depth.
The film is really about the relationship between Britt and Kato, but someone along the way must have said “Superhero movies need a villain and a love interest.” Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg seem less-than-interested in those ideas, so the result is underdeveloped baddie Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) and female lead Lenore (Cameron Diaz). Waltz seems to lack direction and his approach to the character seems a disheartening mixture of boredom, insecurity, and sociopathy. It’s a disappointment to see him go from playing one of cinema’s all-time great villains in Inglourious Basterds to a bad guy who is so forgettable. Diaz fares slightly better since her character, who has degrees in journalism and criminology, inadvertently gives hints to Britt and Kato about what crimes they should commit next. While both characters vie for her romantic affections, the film seems disinterested in giving either of them a real emotional connection with Lenore.
The picture’s real interest is in the burgeoning bromance between Britt and Kato. Rogen and Chou have strong on-screen chemistry, but it mostly falls to Kato to be the straight man while Rogen goes completely off-the-wall with his excitement. Rogen brings a childlike enthusiasm to the character who honestly believes he’s the hero even though his contributions to The Green Hornet plan are mostly superficial (he doesn’t even come up with the name “The Green Hornet”; his original idea is “The Green Bee”, which everyone at the newspaper hates and it’s Kato who comes up with “Hornet”). But because you can see Rogen having so much fun with the character, that enthusiasm carries the film through its slower moments. While some superhero properties are trying to go dark and gritty, The Green Hornet wants to goof off and have a good time. That light-heartedness and Rogen’s charisma keeps you rooting for Britt even though he’s not particularly good at anything and kind of a dick.
Gondry contributes to that spirit but in a restrained manner that shows he has a knack for action and big-budget theatrics while not losing his mischievous lo-tech camera tricks. There are times when Gondry’s films can OD on whimsy (I’m looking at you, The Science of Sleep), but the director strikes a fun balance and knows when to deliver a blockbuster punch of pyrotechnics and when to have a little fun and throw in some animation or editing tricks. It all comes together beautifully in “Kato-Vision”, which is how Kato interprets battles and proceeds to fight them. It’s a mix of time-distortion and reality-distortion. For example, one car can become five cars which allows Kato to pick up speed and deliver a flying kick to a thug’s face.
It’s during “Kato-Vision” where the 3D works best. Unfortunately, for the rest of the film, it’s mostly unnecessary. As far as 3D post-conversions go, the presentation isn’t awful, but there’s nothing that demands you shell out the extra money to see an added dimension to this film. What makes The Green Hornet work is Rogen’s terrific performance and Gondry’s upbeat direction. And even when you realize that Britt’s major moral revelation is complete hypocrisy, you’ll be having too much fun to care.