The Green Hornet is a far better movie than it has any right to be. Right? Maybe not. Michel Gondry is one of the most energizing filmmakers working today, able to turn even the most mundane material into something eye-catching and thought-provoking. So even an action-comedy, in his capable hands… it really ought to be a thing of beauty.
And wouldn’t you know it, The Green Hornet is just that.
The everyman superhero series has its roots in a 1930s radio drama. The character has changed a great deal over the years, but most treatments of the Green Hornet follow the exploits of Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher who moonlights as a masked vigilante with his partner Kato. Gondry’s treatment is basically that. His Reid (Seth Rogen) is a self-possessed party boy, the son of a major newspaper publisher who is living the high life mooching off the success of his father (Tom Wilkinson). Kato (Jay Chou) works for dear old dad as a mechanic and fetcher-of-coffee, but his real skills like in martial arts and performing feats of technological wizardry.
The events that bring these two characters together are fairly predictable. The senior Reid dies suddenly after being stung by a bee -- or was he??? -- leaving the already directionless Britt with no one to kick him in the ass anymore. Kato, fired along with the rest of his father’s staff after the untimely death, is brought back because he makes Britt’s coffee… and it’s some damn good coffee. They drink together one evening, go out in masks to pull a little prank and end up saving a couple from a gang of muggers. Thus, the Green Hornet is born.
There’s a bit more depth to the story than that, stemming from a subplot dealing with Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), the seemingly unassuming but in actuality unhinged criminal kingpin of Los Angeles. Politics and Britt’s father are drawn into the mix. Lessons are learned and everyone is happy in the end. Spoiler alert? Not a chance. You’ve seen this story before. No question.
Credit Gondry for the bulk of the film’s success as a work of pure entertainment. If you want to engage in a thoughtful post-screening discussion, go watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is Gondry’s Tango & Cash. It is meant to please on a very visceral level and he executes it flawlessly. Just in terms of the raw presentation, you can feel his touch in just about every scene. There’s quirk in abundance, from unusual camera angles and edits to artful use of slow motion and jaw-dropping visual effects – “Kato Vision” is stunning, there’s no better word for describing it. It’s a video game moment rendered in the real. The story beats might be familiar, but you’ll be swept away for the full two hours by the form it all takes.
Gondry also elicits some top-notch performances from his two leads. Sort of. There’s not a whole lot of meat to the story. Remember, Tango & Cash. The relationship between Britt and Kato is deep enough to make you care when they are tested, but they’re both basically playing one-note characters who manage to earn themselves another note by the time the credits roll. Good for them. The director gets exactly what he needs out of both characters. From Rogen, it’s an unlikable, egomaniacal lout who you’d nonetheless like to party with. And from Chou, it’s the ever-humble confidante who sees his friend’s many flaws and chooses to overlook them because deep down, he knows the guy is a generally good dude who’s led an overly pampered existence.
You’ve seen it all before, but Gondry manages to capture an honest budding friendship amidst all of the goofy action-comedy stylings. If you’re the sort of filmgoer who absolutely must find some formal element to digress on, the Britt/Kato relationship is your way in.
Less impressive is Waltz, though to be fair this is a tough moment for him. Coming off of Inglourious Basterds with a performance that is going to be just about impossible to top, the only way to go is down. It’s also quite evident, as Spinoff editor Josh Wigler observed after last night’s screening, that the role was originally written for Nicolas Cage. Something feels “off” about Waltz’s performance, a feeling that the character and the actor simply aren’t a good fit for one another. You can see some of his Inglourious Jew Hunter pop up now and again, but a different kind of crazy is required for this character and Waltz doesn’t fully sell it.
Cameron Diaz is similarly puzzling. Her performance is fine, nothing offensive about it. She's really there as a function of the story though, helping to push the plot forward at key moments for our relatively hapless heroes. It doesn't detract from the experience at all; she serves her purpose and then disappears for another half hour while Stuff happens. As with Waltz though, something about her just feels... off.
These are minor observations. There’s so much to like about this movie. Like Edward James Olmos bringing his game as a doppelganger of William Adama (what’s up, Battlestar Galactica fans?!). Or an amazing cameo that occurs during the opening scenes of the film. No spoilers here. Or the incredible amount of gratuitous action which would surely amount to millions of dollars in property damage and tens of innocent lives lost (not that we're given time to dwell on such things). Or a climactic showdown featuring men with guns, a rocket launcher or two, half of a car – a still-functioning half – and a sushi USB drive. If you reach the climax and ask yourself (light spoiler) why they can’t just go find another computer, then you’re missing the point.
So yes, Gondry has delivered an action-comedy that climbs as high as the best examples available in the genre, if not higher. In The Green Hornet he turned a so-so collection of story beats and run-of-the-mill characters into an incredible ride and a fantastically entertaining movie. If this is what happens when you give Gondry an action-driven tale to tell… well… I hope the Michael Bays and James Camerons of the world are taking notes. This is what a 21st century blockbuster ought to look like.