Seth Rogen might just have found his niche playing detestable heroes. He gave a thoroughly entertaining performance as a psychopathic mall cop in Jody Hill’s pitch-black 2008 comedy Observe and Report, and indeed, his performance in Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet bears some similarity. Both would-be heroes are infantile, petty, helpless around women, and prone to occasional bouts of alarmingly skillful violence. But while Observe was an unapologetic celebration of terrible people doing terrible things, The Green Hornet is ostensibly a light-hearted comic tale about a self-styled hero that’s meant to be worthy of our admiration.
Tonally, the film falls somewhere between Kick-Ass and Iron Man. Like the former, Britt Reid (Rogen) is delusional and borderline incompetent, but like the latter, he has all the physics-defying gadgetry he needs to keep himself alive for longer than 30 seconds. In the place of a mellifluous holographic A.I. to build his gadgets, Reid has a Q-ish tech wizard, kung-fu master, and expert barista named Kato (Jay Chou). Kato’s relationship with Reid fluctuates wildly between buddy comedy and guardian for a special needs child – a scene in which Kato explains to Reid why he might need a gas-slinging sidearm is one of the most painfully funny in the film. The audience is left wondering why Kato puts up with his boss’ constant abuse and mockery, but it might have something to do with his seemingly unlimited budget for high-tech toys. In any case, this is not a film for believable (or even comprehensible) relationships.
If The Green Hornet is about anything, it’s narcissistic image-obsession. Over and over again, the characters speak at length about how they look, how they are perceived by others in the story, and what the characters in a violent comic farce should do. Nearly all of the scenes featuring the villainous Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) play like cringe-inducing, metafictional peeks into the writers’ room. “Do I look scary? Is my gun scary? What do you think of my costume? Do you know how many different suits I’ve tried?” Chudnofsky may come with Waltz’s adeptly intimidating presence, but he has no real identity of his own, and feels almost like he is trying to conceive one in front of the cameras. But he’s not half as self-conscious and directionless as our heroes. In a line seemingly tailor-made for the film’s trailer, Reid explains to Kato, “Here’s what will make us different!”
Their grand plan is essentially to start a gang war and kill every criminal in the city. Brilliant in its simplicity, I suppose. But while Black Beauty, the tank-like super car, may allow the Hornet and Kato to viciously slaughter any evildoers with all the subtlety of Depression-era gangsters, it basically just feels like an old-timey and borderline magical version of the Batmobile. What’s more, their grand plan seems as likely to ensnare police and innocent bystanders as rival gangsters. This is Iron Man without a conscience. And strangely, that’s where the film started to appeal to me.
If there is one attribute that has defined nearly all modern superhero films, it’s self-importance. Even in the most schlocky and unwatchable incarnations of the genre (I’m looking at you, Fantastic Four), there are always ponderous questions about what it means to be a hero and how much is at stake if the hero fails. The Green Hornet has no such lofty ambitions, and I was surprised to find its sadistic playfulness and dark humor to be a refreshing change of pace. Nearly every scene in this film is simultaneously exhilarating and painful to watch on some level, from its farcical attempts at romance (for which I give a great deal of credit to Cameron Diaz) to its utterly balls-out action sequences, which are at least impressive on a technical level. They don’t all land perfectly, but I’m happy to see that director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) remains as skillful as ever, even with a blockbuster budget. What’s more, he even managed to shoehorn in a dream sequence chock full of practical effects and camera trickery – a skillful display which felt mostly out of place, but by the time it appeared, I was past caring about the film’s lack of consistency.
The Green Hornet is an oddity, to be sure. I didn’t emerge from it without a laundry list of complaints, but I still found the sum of the experience enjoyable. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script feels like it’s trying to be the buddy-comedy spiritual successor to Superbad, and it at least partially succeeds. The writing is very jokey and surprisingly dark, but exhibits a clear understanding of comic book tropes. In a genre that’s gradually starting to wear out its welcome, this bizarre spectacle of a film feels far more like a labor of love than a cynical cashgrab, and that might just be what makes it watchable.
FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10