In Seth Rogen’s (Funny People) latest leading role, which he wrote for himself, he creates a superhero with all the personality faults of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man but without any of the charm or competence. It’s a bold choice to craft a possible superhero franchise around a tiresome jerk, but Rogen relishes the challenge.
The film tells the story of Britt Reid (Rogan), the son of a newspaper magnate who hates his father and wants to save people. When his father’s death interrupts one of his nights of skirt-chasing and heavy drinking, Reid decides to use his money to make a difference in the world.
No, wait, I’m sorry, he decides to break into a graveyard to deface his father’s tomb.
With his father’s former chauffeur Kato (Jay Chou: True Legend) as his getaway driver, Reid leaves the graveyard and stumbles upon a mugging. He tries to stop the thugs but ends up their target. Thank goodness Kato is revealed to have super karate powers, as he saves Reid by beating the life out of the weapon-wielding toughs.
This harrowing experience convinces Reid that he and Kato should be a superhero team who pose as bad guys to get the real bad guys. So Reid becomes the Green Hornet, whose power is being loud, and Kato becomes Kato, whose power is putting up with Reid.
Reid decides to take on Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz: Inglorious Basterds), who owns all crime in Los Angeles. Amazingly, the hardened murderous criminal doesn’t enjoy being mocked by an obnoxious guy in a green mask, and he starts a killing spree in the City of Angels. Reid escalates this violence with Chudnofsky by using his paper as a PR platform for the Green Hornet.
Oh, and Cameron Diaz (Knight and Day) shows up, because the film needs a pretty blonde to break up all the male action.
There are a lot of problems with this movie. The first is the film’s conceit that Kato is a marshal arts genius because he grew up in China. Of course, this deadly dynamo would be subservient to the wealthy white Reid because … that’s a problem that Rogen seems to load on the White Man’s Burden. Even when Kato rebels against Reid’s terrible leadership, it’s a short-lived fight that results in Kato’s remaining Reid’s long-suffering sidekick. Maybe he really likes his mask.
The other problem is Chudnofsky, who is more charming and believable than Rogen could hope to be. Waltz kills and threatens with gleeful abandon, while showing a surprisingly insecure villain who fears his image isn’t cool enough to garner respect. Waltz clearly had a ball with this role, and he effortlessly steals the movie.
That’s a pretty scathing assessment, but the news isn’t completely bleak: Rogen wrote a pretty entertaining script, when Reid isn’t on screen, and The Green Hornet does evoke some genuine humor from its premise. The villain’s belief that he needs a gimmick to stay relevant is a refreshing twist on the baddie-of-the-week character.
Director Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind) adds some great comic-book-style action sequences to the film. Some are odd: Kato gets some sort of Karate-Vision when he’s about to kick baddie butt that turns the screen red as he assesses the fight’s risk. I wasn’t sure if Gondry wanted to make Kato a terminator or if he had some leftover money in the effects budget.
Most of Gondry’s style choices are spot-on, from the slick look of the gadgets and the Black Beauty — that would be the legendary tricked-out car — to the heart-pumping car chases through downtown LA.
Overall, The Green Hornet is a triumph of style over substance that left me mildly irritated but pretty entertained if I didn’t think about the plot too much. Still, I long for a sequel that features Kato ditching the Green dolt for Chudnofsky. Now there’s an action franchise with some potential.