How do you update a superhero who actually predates comic books? That’s obviously hard enough, but just for laughs and awkward explanations about intellectual property, also separate the character from his original connection to another masked hero. Beyond that, how do you succeed when for over a decade, many other studios have failed and now the wave of superhero films has allegedly gone into overload?
Tough question, and if you run Sony, the odd solution was to hire comedian Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. Obviously, someone high up (or maybe just high) had heard this guy was popular with the kids, and not paid attention to anything about Rogen’s actual persona.
We’re talking about a role once connected to George Clooney. But guess what? It works, and Rogen deserves credit for it. It’s as if Rogen wouldn’t even choose himself to play the Green Hornet, but he’s going to make the best of it.
It’s not that his Britt Reid drastically differs from other roles he has played, though he famously slimmed down for it. If anything, Britt may be the least likeable character in The Green Hornet, but that’s also part of the point. Though he flirted with nobility as a kid, the adult Britt is every bit the waste of space and wealth that his father, crusading newspaper editor James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), accuses him of being.
So Britt stews in his own daddy issues, even after his father dies suddenly of a bee sting. Perhaps it’s self-absorption that keeps him from realizing what the audience must. Only the re-appearance of Kato (Jay Chou) snaps him out of his funk – mostly because this secretly brilliant weaponsmith and mechanic makes a terrific cup of coffee.
Even when stirred into being a hero – and actually coming up with a fairly good rationale for letting people think he’s a villain – Britt can’t help but be Britt. No one truly changes over night — or even over a fortnight.
It allows for Rogen to keep the rhythms of what has made him a star, but also to lay out a character arc that we usually don’t see in so-called “comic book movies.” By the end, you hope, Britt will be a lot less of a jerk, because really, he’d have to be.
Give credit, too, to Director Michel Gondry, accused of taking a paycheck to direct this movie. Yes, of course he did, but he also tries to play with the form some. The director fast-forwards through the things that Britt has done a thousand times before, but takes the time to show the audience just how Kato assesses a threatening situation.
While from the trailer it was obvious that Gondry was also going to pander to Sony’s desire to make this 3-D, that’s not nearly as distracting as it seemed. Instead, Gondry mostly lets us look in on the action instead of making it pop out at us. (Okay, the flying bottle caps thing was obvious.)
There’s a sense of fun about the whole thing, but balanced with a proper sense of danger. From the outset, criminal mastermind Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) is coolly efficient as a killer, but also inordinately concerned about being behind the curve in overall menace. His ultimate solution turns out to almost be the right one to counter the Green Hornet, but it’s also purely accidental.
That runs through the film as well. Yes, it turns on a few coincidences, but the movie tugs back from being too over the top – at least until a high energy, almost operatic, final confrontation. Until then, these are characters stumbling their way through a game-changing situation, on both sides.
It’s also a movie daring to acknowledge Cameron Diaz as not being the ingénue she once was, and making that part of the arc, too. She’s still attractive, of course, but it’s a reversal of the way every other superhero movie casts the female lead – usually far younger and too lightweight for the occupation the character has.
Here, Diaz’s Lenore Case shows up as a temp secretary, but turns out to have had a derailed career in journalism with a minor in criminology. Like Britt and Kato, she wasted her potential, but the explanation for that has been saved for a sequel.
So you can guess there’s an actual theme to this movie, though one familiar to the genre. But the creative team are clearly familiar with all the tropes and interested in turning them upside down. That’s not to say it’s not done with affection. They know their stuff, and nods to it show up throughout the film, including an initial mask right out of the first portrayals of the characters in the 1930s and music cues by James Newton Howard that would have fit on radio and on the 1960s series.
Don’t tell Disney, but this Sony Production even acknowledges Britt Reid’s great-uncle. If you’re on this site, we need not say more.
Maybe it’s that 2011 has already been fraught with challenges and sadness, but The Green Hornet feels like the right movie at the right time to lighten the mood. It’s not perfect. Edward James Olmos clearly had most of his part cut, and feels wasted in what becomes barely more than a cameo. A few characters come off as too lightweight.
But this was meant to be fun, clear from the beginning with a cameo by one of Rogen’s old friends. It also gets why the superhero genre keeps getting tapped. Maybe evil can’t be stopped, but someone’s got to try.