REVIEW: Seth Rogen Barely Half a Hero in The Green Hornet
The idea of Seth Rogen as the Green Hornet so inflaming the fanboy community is amusing, since that group's 20/50 vision also had it tsking its disapproval about Michael Keaton as Batman and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man (corrective hindsight brought them on board for the latter). But as with those previous strip-to-screen revivals, this new Hornet excited me; Seth Rogen as Britt Reid in a film directed by Michael Gondry sounded very promising.
For those who aren't comic-book fluent, the Green Hornet got his start in a 1930s radio serial. By day, he was Britt Reid, newspaper publisher, and by night, the Hornet, a masked hero without superpowers who subdued crooks occasionally with his fists, and more often, his gas gun -- what Jules Feiffer described in his book, The Great Comic Book Heroes as the rich man's version of non-lethal chemical warfare. (Feiffer could've specified "rich white man's version.") Kato, the Hornet's trusty manservant, did the majority of the thankless dirty work, including acting as Reid's chauffeur for both his civilian and masked identities. Then in the '60s, producer William Dozier -- who immortalized Adam West's undefined abs and Burt Ward's squeak in the Batman TV show -- translated The Green Hornet into a similarly camp TV series; as Kato, Bruce Lee's physical aplomb and movie-star charisma made the short-lived series a legend.
While this latest Rogen-penned iteration is a game try, it feels a bit like he's trying to make a volume out of a footnote. Even the new NBC series The Cape manages to stake more a claim on the superhero genre than this Hornet, affectionately revisiting comics while maintaining a kid's purity of belief. Unfortunately, Hornet feels like a movie everyone involved with thinks they're smarter than -- and too cool to bring that boyish zealotry along to.
The main issue is that the characters Rogen writes for himself to play are often far less self-aware than he thinks, even while compulsively commenting on their surroundings. In Pineapple Express his only goal is to pass judgment on the world in his stoner's bullfrog voice. Rogen's meta-take in Hornet is more interesting than the plot itself: He and writing partner Evan Goldberg's script starts with the assassination of Britt's crusading newspaper dad (Tom Wilkinson) and leads into a Los Angeles gang war, which the media escalates, especially the Reid family newspaper The Daily Sentinel, under Britt's heavy hand.
Rogen and Goldberg ably folded pieces of Jonathan Hickman's The Nightly News comic series and Walter Hill's The Warriors into the mix. It's just that no one ever got around to stirring it. Hornet becomes that oddity -- a film more fun to describe than to watch. The filmmakers understand any excitement over the Hornet only came about because of the '60s series -- and principally because of Bruce Lee's Kato and the gorgeous lacquered finish on the Black Beauty, the '65 Chrysler Imperial that Kato drove them around in and that sported an options package from the Blackwater catalog. So Kato (Jay Chou) is shown as being more capable than Reid in every way, from laying a foam leaf on a cappuccino to auto mechanics to finally designing and building the Black Beauty. The long and belabored punchline is that Kato is the sifu, even though Reid thinks he's the master -- the sort of obviousness some may mistake for a subversion of the genre.
On top of all that, there's not much chemistry between Rogen and Chou, so little in fact that when Reid and Kato's bros squabble turns into a fight, you'll think of how much more effective the lover's spat between Rogen and James Franco was in Pineapple Express. You'll also be reminded of Express during the climactic Hornet battle; Express so cleverly made the concept of Rogen in an action set-up the stuff of comedy, he can't be taken seriously in a similar setpiece now.
To divert himself from the weightless narrative, Gondry uses his eye for choreographing machinery. His visual chic turns the printing process in the newspaper plant into poetry. He shoots the Black Beauty so lovingly, it's as if he'd spent hours assembling the Aurora model version.
Since all of the characters come off as joke set-ups, there's not much they can do. When Cameron Diaz rushes in breathlessly half an hour into the movie, it's as if someone just remembered the movie needed a woman. And when Christoph Waltz, as the petty, jealous bad guy Chudnofsky, isn't engaged as an actor, his suavity turns into contempt -- here, it's what Mary McCarthy once called an oily virtuosity. Rogen hasn't stepped up his game that much. Despite his obvious pride in his new Lean Cuisine physique, his Britt Reid is still hobbled with a slacker's posture. Even Rogen's gift for turning any environment he inhabits in into a clubhouse doesn't help.
Rogen and Goldberg write funny lines, and the idea of L.A. as a city with several newspapers that people read -- as well as pedestrian traffic -- amuses as well. (As is the notion of the Sentinel being such a big deal, given the real life Los Angeles Sentinel happens to be one of the venerated African-American newspapers in the country.) When Bruce Lee gets his cameo in The Green Hornet -- as one of the drawings in Kato's notebook -- it clarifies what the film is: an unrealized sketch. A sketch can afford to allude to a point of view. Moviemakers need to show their point of view, something this shrug of a movie never gets around to doing.