A superhero movie can be smart, funny, and action-packed, too—Kick-Ass demonstrated that. Smartass, jokey, and loud, however, aren't the same thing. Which is what The Green Hornet demonstrates.
Although Sony denies it, one can imagine the studio's dismay upon first seeing this mess. The picture was originally scheduled for release last summer; then, in order to (what else?) convert it into 3D, it was rescheduled for December 23. Now, here it finally is, in the depths of January. Where it belongs.
The movie's setup—wealthy newspaper publisher turns masked crime-fighter in tandem with his Asian chauffeur-sidekick—remains unchanged from the story's origin in 1930s radio and its subsequent iterations in various comic books, movie serials, and a one-season '60s TV show (which featured Bruce Lee as the sidekick). A feature-film version has been in the works for years, with George Clooney, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Smith, and Hong Kong action-comedy director Stephen Chow each attached at various points. What we have here, at long last, is a movie directed by the whimsical Michel Gondry (fondly known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, not so fondly for the fey Science of Sleep); scripted by Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg (they also wrote the superior Rogen vehicles Superbad and Pineapple Express); and starring Rogen as the crime-fighting publisher, Britt Reid, and Taiwanese pop star/actor Jay Chou as Kato, the sidekick. Chou, despite sometimes indistinct line readings, brings charm and energy to the proceedings; Rogen brings Rogen, and not a lot else, which is one of the picture's several problems.
The movie opens with some quick backstory. Browbeaten as a kid by his rich father (Tom Wilkinson), Britt grows up into a bratty wastrel, devoting his life to drunken carousing and conspicuous consumption. When his dad suddenly dies (of a mysterious bee sting), Britt decides to shape up. He begins to take an interest in the family newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, as a vehicle for exposing crime and corruption. Then, after an encounter with some street thugs, he decides on a more direct approach. Teaming with Kato, his family retainer, car mechanic, and gadget-meister, he dons a disguise—a black mask and vintage fedora, which disguise nothing—and becomes the Green Hornet, bringing vigilante justice to bear on the local crime lord, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, quietly setting aside the Oscar he won for Inglourious Basterds).
Back at The Daily Sentinel offices, Britt soon acquires a new secretary, Lenore Case, who's played by Cameron Diaz. Lenore is the movie's unlikeliest character, a one-time journalism student who now works as a temp. Which is fine. But she is also not the hot young babe Britt was hoping to hire. When she reveals her age, her new employer erupts in derisive guffaws: "Thirty-six?" Britt says. "We'll have to build a ramp." This ungracious emphasis on the 10-year age difference between Rogen and Diaz (who's unflatteringly photographed to look weathered throughout), short-circuits whatever romantic interest might have leavened the boy-centric plot, and leaves the story to sink beneath Gondry's rampant visual chaos—endless lashings of slo-mo kung fu and Britt-Kato bickering, and more gunfights, explosions, and woefully generic car chases than even a much better movie might bear. The tedium builds as the narrative dwindles.
Britt's throwback hat and mask suggest a more useful direction the movie might have taken. Would it not have been better as a cool retro yarn set in the period of the Hornet's origin, with snappier dialogue and a more noir-ish atmosphere? A comic-book movie is nothing without a style, and setting this one in the familiar environs of present-day L.A. buries it in blandness. Similarly, the Hornet character, lacking any tragic flaw of the Bruce Wayne variety, or super powers along the lines of Peter Parker's, needs some sort of compensating brio. Rogen is never less than likable, but his trademark brand of funny, with its casual, throwaway delivery, is of little use in creating a strongly-defined character. He ends up with no alternative but to play himself.
Special note must be made of the picture's pitiful 3D conversion, which rivals that of Clash of the Titans for pure ineffectuality. You don the requisite 3D glasses and then spend the rest of the movie wondering why you bothered. When the end credits—which were actually created in 3D—finally roll, they really pop out at you, and you wonder why the whole movie didn't look like this. Then you wonder why the jokers responsible for this techno-flummery would think you should pay an extra five dollars for such a lackluster visual experience. Talk about crime lords.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.